⇒A nostalgic re-entry into the world of teen angst, bad decisions, and sketchy friendships. Fun!⇐
Author: Susan Choi
Genre: Contemporary Adult / Literary Fiction
Published April 9, 2019, by Henry Holt & Company
Pages: 257 (Hardcover)
They were all children who had previously failed to fit in, or had failed, to the point of acute misery, to feel satisfied, and they had seized on creative impulse in the hope of salvation.
I remember high school very well. It was one of the best times of my life. The perceived freedom, the irresponsibility, the proximity to everything good and bad all at once – it was a great time! High school can be a very angst-filled time in a young person’s life. The personal battles of acceptance of self and of others in addition to simply trying to maintain every single day under new responsibilities and expectations can be a harrowing experience.
Reading Trust Exercise thrust me right back into that teenage mind-space where you haven’t quite got everything figured out, but you really think you know it all. It’s a confusing time. Could that be the brilliance of this book and of Susan Choi, or is it its downfall? Here’s the blurb:
In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving “Brotherhood of the Arts,” two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley. The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true—though it’s not false, either. It takes until the book’s stunning coda for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place—revealing truths that will resonate long after the final sentence.
Before I get into how I felt about this book, I have to give a rousing standing ovation to Choi for doing something that woefully few other authors every successfully accomplish (though they desperately attempt it) – she masters the art of writing in different voices.
Trust Exercise is written in three parts, each narrated by a different character. While the POVs are consistent in parts one and three, part two fluctuates between first person, second person, and third person-limited points of view; a real round-robin collection of thoughts and perspectives. And while part two felt a lot like dissociative identity disorder, Choi crafted all of these voices in distinctive ways and with unique patterns. Many people can’t pull that off – the voices all end up, inevitably, sounding like the author; however, this book is a notable exception.
Sarah, in part one, presents as young, a little naïve but blanketing it with trumped up bravado, and sadly solitary even though she’s surrounded by people on a daily basis. Karen comes off instantly as bitter, vengeful, and egotistical (all the word definitions, really?!). And then there’s Claire – inquisitive, skeptical, and searching for answers that will help her to define her own existence. The voices are dissimilar and distinct in ways that almost, almost made me like this book more. Almost.
Thoughts are often false. A feeling’s always real. Not true, just real.
For most, this is going to be a love it or hate it book. I’ve seen a lot of 5-star reviews and a lot of 1-stars too. Hey, either it works for you or it doesn’t. As usual, with my Libra sense of balance, I land somewhere squarely in the middle. 3 stars. Let me give you the high points: First, this is a really well-written book. Choi’s skill is undeniable. Think what you want about the story, she’s an excellent author. Period. Next, the characters are easily recognizable. You went to school with them. The other one taught your art class. And that other one was your best friend’s mom. These are people that could have easily been in your life circle, making the story immediately applicable and relevant. And finally, the breadth and expression of feeling in this story is masterful. Every emotion from anguish to acceptance jumps off the page. It is in those instances that we, as readers, are able to “see” the book in our heads, and that is priceless.
Love was some kind of chemical error.
With every hill, there is valley, and with every high a low. And with that poetic introduction, I begin the gripe-session portion of my review. I didn’t like this book as much as really, really, wanted to like it. The first part truly drew me in. I wanted to be submerged in that story, follow its development, and I would have been fine knowing that its characters and experiences were real. Its abbreviated ending disappointed me and left me feeling unglued from the rest of the book’s development.
Part two, Karen’s story, is extremely jarring. EVERYTHING changes. There is no easing into it, no subtle segue, no warm transfer. It’s as if you’re watching a movie on VHS that someone inexplicably started taping a new movie right on top of it during a critical scene. I felt uneasy and disturbed. Her whole section was uneasy and disturbing. I never settled into it. It was like an uncomfortable pair of shoes; it pinched the whole time.
The events of the story are exceedingly ambiguous and make excellent fodder for any book club meeting. You could go back and forth for many a week discussing the possibilities of what is true and what is conjecture from the perspective of each of these characters. Choi gets a lot of credit for making the book worth talking about, but could also take a lot of heat for shrouding the story in maybe a bit too much uncertainty. It is because of the elusive meaning behind Trust Exercise that I sat on this review for much longer than I usually do. I wanted to let it marinate a while, let it wash over me, and feel all the feels. Turns out, it didn’t change much about the way I rated it, but it left me with a deeper appreciation for the work as a whole. I still recommend it to others because the beauty of opinions is that everyone has one.
Susan Choi was born in South Bend, Indiana and was raised there and in Houston, Texas. She studied literature at Yale and writing at Cornell, and worked for several years as a fact-checker for The New Yorker.