Ah geez. I had such hopes for this one, but in the end I was relieved when I finished it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio book that helped me push through to the end.
Conceptually, it sounds like a winner. (And to be fair, it did win the National Book Award.) Students enrolled in a citywide magnet school live in a cloistered bubble, isolated from the city—and the world—around them. The time is the 1980s. The drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, has an oversized role and influence in their lives, not only academically but emotionally. Boundaries, not so much. And when Sarah and David fall for each other, and then un-fall, Mr. Kingsley serves as a sort of puppet master, telling them what to do. The same applies to friendships turned sour.
The premise is believable. This reviewer recalls a respected public school with a strong performing arts program that operated in real life in the late 1970s. Some of the teachers didn’t seem to know about boundaries, and the students—of which I was one—never complained, because it made us feel like respected adults. A student and teacher had an affair while I was there, and they married after she graduated. They remain so. And so when I saw the teaser for this book, I was ready to jump right in, because it spoke to me.
Sadly, it stopped speaking to me by the twenty-five percent mark. I tried restarting a couple of times, but I hit a wall. Finally, determined not to miss out on an award-winning novel, I ordered the audio version from the library and listened to it while I sewed my family’s first set of COVID masks. Both were grim tasks.
While there must be art present here for Choi to win such a prestigious award, the plot is convoluted and difficult to follow, and the characters, which are the heart and soul of this novel, never come alive. In the last half it becomes clear that we’ve had an unreliable narrator all along, but if anything, it makes the story muddier.
This might be a one star read for me, but I still say the premise is meaty, and for that I tack on the second star.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book.