Incredibly ambitious structurally, with a shape that is organically interesting than ASYMMETRY which it is quite similar to Reminds me a bit of SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS, but loses its connection to the fun teen drama that propels the first 100 pages of the novel A very, very fun book to talk about, and think about I m just not sure the ambiguity about what is true at the end of the novel is a slight misstep I would have liked this a touch better if, toward the end, there had been answers I love withholding novels, but I m not quite sure if the math of this structure quite adds up.
Trust Exercise is a novel about a performing arts high school in a sprawling southern city that for some reason is never named it s Houston The first half of it is told from the point of view of Sarah, one of the students, who goes through the usual issues with friends and boyfriends and parents, although everything is ratcheted up to 11 here, I guess to emphasize that performing arts schools can be a tad dramatic Self important Certainly the writing in the first half of the book would support this idea Sure, everything feels like a big deal in high school, but does it really feel like THIS BIG of a deal Everything is overwrought Everything is overwritten Everything is like a tiny terrarium into which way too many lizards have been crammed The sides of the terrarium are steaming up Everyone is flushing pink and sweating literally I got a little tired of learning how everyone smelled Who keeps reaching into the terrarium and poking the lizards Why, the illustrious drama teacher Mr Kingsley, a man with such an inflated sense of the significance of himself and his theatre never theater, god forbid department that he was only bearable if, every time he appeared, I imagined Jon Lovitz s voice in my head, intoning HELLO I AM LLEWELLYN SINCLAIR Here s Mr Kingsley s oversize ego on display Here s Mr Kingsley getting inappropriately involved in his students personal lives Honestly, everything about this section annoyed me, from the creepy adults to the creepy students to the eyerolling intensity HELLO I AM LLEWELLYN SINCLAIR of everything they did Houston was portrayed as a bunch of parking lots connected by multilane boulevards and highways, which was probably accurate but horrible to have to spend time in Everything was yucky and gross and impossible to care about I wanted to give up so much but kept going because 1 I have liked Susan Choi s work in the past, so I was giving her the benefit of the doubt and 2 I d heard there was some kind of twist halfway through, and I was curious about what it was I thought there was a chance the book could still be redeemed.
Then the twist happened Without really giving anything away, the twist is that the second half of the book is told from the point of view of a character who is peripheral to the first half of the novel Peripheral Character is here to let you know that not everything Sarah told you is true Peripheral Character is also extremely boring and prone to parsing words, listing their synonyms and how they can circle back around to words that don t mean quite the same thing as the words they are supposed to be synonymous with The point of this seems to be that NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS The New Yorker review makes much of all this, intoning that the first half of the story serves one of its characters i.
, Sarah than the others But isn t this how it always is in fiction The author chooses which characters to use to tell the story The other characters are there but don t really get a say in what s going on This is literally what happens in every piece of fiction Why is it unique here Is it because Choi switches to the point of view of a character who was peripheral in the first half For me, it just heightened the level of Who cares about the whole thing Who cares about Peripheral Character Who cares if Peripheral Character says not everything happened the way Sarah told it Who cares what Peripheral Character s experiences were Peripheral Character sometimes switches back and forth between first and third person to remind us that she, too, is adding her own gloss on things, but who cares Isn t it all fiction anyway I kept asking myself This is the first time I can remember ever asking that about a novel I was reading Usually these issues of character reliability, of point of view, of plot, matter to me I would ordinarily never say Who cares Isn t it all fiction anyway The fact that I did it multiple times with Trust Exercise can mean only one thing This novel didn t work for me at all And those endings An initial ending that was simultaneously preposterous and utterly predictable, followed by another twist, with an even higher Who cares factor than the previous one, that didn t tell me anything I hadn t already figured out long ago Trust Exercise made me think a lot about experimental fiction If you asked me, I would say that I love experimental fiction I love having the rug pulled out from under me, I love having to think about who to believe, I love having to turn the whole thing over in my head and figure out how it works But Trust Exercise really brought home the idea that if your novel doesn t have a solid foundation credible characters, good writing, a plot that really works an experiment turns into nothing than a cheap trick And that s what we have here.
As I mentioned, I ve liked Susan Choi s writing in the past I also once met her at a reading and she seemed like a great person For these reasons, I almost gave this book 2 stars But the fact is, for any other writer, this would have been an obvious 1 star The fact that I know Susan Choi knows what she s doing actually makes things worse, not better She obviously thought what she was giving us in Trust Exercise was good enough For me, it was not good enough This book was the worst kind of Trust Exercise I had faith that Susan Choi would catch me, and instead she just let me hit the floor The headache I got is nothing compared to the disappointment I feel.
This experimental novel discusses consent by shifting timelines and perspectives, thus forcing the reader to question and re adjust which characters to trust and it s no spoiler to state that in the end, no one will turn out to be who you thought they d be Choi starts with a high school drama that then turns into a meta fictional revenge tale only to end in an even disturbing coda, and I just love how she defies expectations and disrupts narrative conventions There s a certain brutality in the ever shifting reading experience, and the novel also requires some detective work in oder to find out what is actually going on, so there s all the stuff I enjoy in experimental fiction In the first part of the book there are no chapters or other indicators, you have to unlock the story which takes place in the early 80s, we meet Sarah and David who are students at a renowned arts high school in an unnamed big city in the southern part of the United States In an environment full of aspiring artists who dream of taking the big stage, dynamics of power and dependency unfold The enigmatic theater teacher uses his position to manipulate students, and he submits them under so called Trust Exercises where they have to look at each other, repeat each other s sentences or openly reveal all kinds of hidden thoughts When David and Sarah fall in love, their relationship quickly turns sour and Sarah ends up having an affair with a much older theater teacher who visits the school with his own students from England I will certainly NOT tell you what happens next, because it would ruin the reading experience for you, but let me say that after reading the whole novel, you will give a very different account regarding what happens in the book than I just did Choi negotiates power in sexual relationships, responsibility, victimhood, and awareness, and she does it in a very clever, challenging way Other reviewers compared this book to Asymmetry, and there is some truth to that, but Choi uses her narrative shifts to constantly re write part one, thus illustrating the effects of framing, scope, perspective and also empathy Here, the asymmetry is brought about by the point of view and, above all, the judgement passed by different characters I applaud Susan Choi for this daring feat of a book, it s engaging, surprising and intelligent I hope she ll get nominated for some awards, because this novel deserves attention.
NO SPOILERS Full disclosure Book abandoned on page 61 out of 257 pages It s so important to care about characters, really care, to be invested in what happens in a story I couldn t care less about those in Susan Choi s Trust Exercise In part one, the story is about high school freshmen David and Sarah studying drama in the early 1980s as they develop a romantic relationship I couldn t get a solid grasp of just who these young teens are they re just names on a page, not characters brought to life I attribute this to Choi s love of narrative summary There s little action and dialogue in Trust Exercise that would have allowed me to draw my own conclusions about David and Sarah and the peripheral characters Instead, in large blocks of text, Choi told me all about them their history, their thoughts and feelings, what they think of various other characters everything It s dispassionate storytelling In no time I was bored As for David and Sarah s relationship, it begins with a groping where the consent is questionable but that Choi presented as acceptable From there, the relationship is defined mostly by overly detailed sex, which left a sour taste in my mouth Yes, many teens have sex, but there s something repellent about reading every detail of their encounters A fade to black would have worked just fine As someone who loves stories set in academia, I looked very forward to reading Trust Exercise, but it s firmly set in the world of drama students I haven t studied drama extensively, which would be a non factor if Choi hadn t described the classes in a way that only drama students could appreciate For pages, she described each aspect of a Trust Exercise between David and Sarah, from the small to the big as if making very clear that she has a background in drama I can only assume There s supposed to be tension in this scene, but owing to superficial characterization and Choi s failure to establish high stakes, it s instead tedious David and Sarah aren t compelling.
The literati will probably adore Trust Exercise Choi was a Pulitzer prize nominee for a previous work, and Trust Exercise is written in that introspective, artistic and sometimes hilariously overwrought style that makes snobby intellectuals feel smart for appreciating As a literature lover who wants and expects the full package in a story skilled writing, organized plotting, and full bodied characters I contend that Trust Exercise is simply bad The literati can have it all other readers should look elsewhere.
NOTE I received this as an Advanced Reader Copy from LibraryThing in January 2019.
Thank you to Henry Holt Company and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Boy, oh boy where to start Unfortunately, I have no real positive things to say about this book I have had it for weeks Within the first 10 pages I knew this was going to be something I would struggle with The best way I can describe it is trying to read a book while it s under water It s never quite fully in focus and I felt like I was only picking up every other word or so To explain it another way there is way too much superfluous language and also it doesn t read how I would normally talk I felt like I was reading a translation of another language Susan Choi obviously has a talent for the written word, but I wouldn t say she writes for the reader, she writes for herself and the literary critics I could be way off base here, and I don t mean this in a mean way, but when 2 or 3 words work, why do you need to use 10 To show off I thought this book would be kind of like Fame young kids Sarah and David who fall in love in the 1980s at a prestigious art school Not even close I feel terrible saying this, but don t waste your time There are too many amazing books out there.
Update I reread MY EDUCATION and then reread Trust Exercise and it was fantastic, highly recommended Trust Exercise is a book that can leave you feeling like the floor has been pulled out from under you and not all readers like that This kind of structure can also mean the book doesn t hold up upon subsequent readings But this one absolutely does In fact, I had even joy the second time through knowing what the pieces were and seeing how Choi brings them together And seeing the ways in which she leaves questions still open I am fascinated by the ways in which we process the same experiences differently and this book dives into that so hard, I just loved it I loved how the narrative tricks of the book aren t just there to trick you, they re there to tell you something specific about who these people are and why they are telling this specific story I particularly love the shifting voice and acerbic tone of the second section, it was so incredibly gratifying.
One lurks in every high school a charismatic teacher who cultivates a clique of acolytes Miss Jean Brodie aside, this teacher is typically a man in his prime, parceling out the precious gift of his intimacy to a select group No matter how many years have passed, you can probably still recall his name at your own school the droll iconoclast who always seemed at odds with the administration, the cool teacher who made thrillingly inappropriate asides Amid rumors of some past glory, he radiated an air of long suffering superiority, as though his willingness to teach mere high school students were another example of his largesse.
In fact, as you realize later, he could thrive nowhere else but in that moist terrarium of adolescent desire He was a vampire thirsty for the fervor of teenage boys and girls.
That immortal figure rises up at the center of Susan Choi s Trust Exercise, the latest of her startling novels about academic life Mr Kingsley is a theater teacher at Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, an elite institution intended to cream off the most talented students and prepare them for their exceptional lives Mr Kingsley is exotic by the standards of this unnamed Southern town in the early 1980s He once lived in New York He refers to Broadway star Joel Grey as Joel He owns a bizarre human size doll that was supposed to be called a soft sculpture To the theater students desperate for his attention, Mr Kingsley was impossibly witty and sometimes impossibly cutting the prospect of talking with him was terrifying and galvanizing one longed to live up to his brilliance and equally feared that it couldn t be done This is the most precise skewering of a magnetic teacher since Muriel Spark s 1961 classic Choi s voice blends an adolescent s awe with an adult s irony It s a letter perfect satire of the special strain of egotism and obsession that can fester in academic settings Choi is particularly attentive to Mr Kingsley s inane maxims, which his adoring students polish into sacred To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post https www.
com entert This is a hard novel to discuss without ruining the experience so I will just say it starts out with high school students in an arts magnet school with a lot of theater focus I read it because it was on the Tournament of books Camp Tob list.
More detailed thoughts that I ll hide behind a spoiler I really recommend reading this without reading about it view spoiler I think the author had good instincts I m a fan of the idea that everyone tells a different version of a story, and everyone has their reasons But the last two sections are hardly that, especially the last one I would have liked a much fleshed out final part to understand what she was trying to do there More than anything, the way people s names change based on who is telling the story kind of masked the story for me in a bad way.
And some of the points of contention, for instance the rather clever Joelle was part of Karen s personality are well, clever, but are they necessary I think they muddy the waters But possibly intentionally so we don t expect what s coming.
Unfortunately I know chekhov s gun so I always knew someone was getting shot Too obvious Beginner s error.
So I feel I would have given the book a solid 4 stars for its capture of teenage artsy fartsy theater culture similar to how I gave The Animators 5 stars for a similar capture, but slightly better and could have upped that if I felt Choi had done what she wanted to do effectively, but instead feel these extra parts just muddy everything up I agree with whatever person it was in the novel who stuck the bookmark in at page 131 because to them that was where the novel ended, or whatever that very obvious reference was.
If the novel had continued as a theatRE story I probably would have given it four stars And as much as I want to award experimentation and difference, the fact that I didn t find the final two sections well executed actually lowers my opinion of the book, which is a shame hide spoiler