by Thomas Christopher Greene
286 pages, Thomas Dunne Books
Review by J. S. Colley
I picked up this book after finishing Gone Girl. Flipping through the first chapter, I thought, Oh, no! Not another jackass character doing jackass-y things. I didn’t know if I had the stomach for it; but I had heard, on good word, that this was a worthwhile read, so I trudged on. As the hackneyed phrase goes, I’m glad I did.
This is a masterfully crafted novel. The way the story unravels; how the reality of the first half of the novel is revealed in the second—all wonderfully done. Greene is able to hold the same poignant tone throughout. Any writer who wants to learn how to avoid passive voice should study it, and readers will recognize that they are in the hands of a skilled author.
The Headmaster’s Wife does have similarities to Gone Girl in that things are not always as they seem and it’s a story about a husband and wife, but the similarities end there. Even though the characters in the former do and think things that exemplify less than our ideal image of human behavior, the reader is not left with the same I-need-to-take-a-hot-shower feeling after turning the last page, as many reviewers seem to have experienced after reading the latter.
What makes this difference? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps it’s the same thing that distinguishes an excellent beach read from a piece of literary fiction—sometimes the variances are so nuanced they are hard to define. In both novels, we get a sense of how shallow, self-centered and indulgent we humans can be. But The Headmaster’s Wife is more. It’s a complex, nuanced and poignant look at love and marriage, life and grief; that what we do, or fail to do, early in our lives affects us until the end of our days.
She considers the past. She measures it and weighs it and holds it in her hand like a plum…moments that happened years before. She turns them over and over in her mind, things she has not thought about in years, and she can see now how obvious it all is. Every small event begets another one, each one built off the other until you have a chain of events that all lead to…this…
What it all comes down to is the fact that there is no avoiding life. Even in the pampered world of the academic, it still intrudes:
Not to have to worry about shopping or meals or where they would live? All that would be taken care of. Teaching—even running a boarding school—is another form of arrested adolescence. Even in their responsibilities, they are all playing Peter Pan, the real world something that happens outside these ivy-covered walls.
A perfectly scripted life, in other words, with regimented days and seasons defined as much by the rhythms of school as by the weather.
This makes one wonder if entrusting our children’s higher learning to lifelong academics is the right course to take. Part of an education should be how to live in the real world, but how can that be effectively taught by people who have never experienced its difficulties—or its own brand of rewards?
As with any good novel, this one makes you think about things other than what’s happening in the forefront.
But I digress.
The title of this novel is misleading (just as in Gone Girl) because this novel is not all about the wife; the husband plays a major role also. In fact, the first part of the three parts (“Acrimony,” “Expectations,” and “After”) of this novel is his story, as told to the authorities who found him disoriented and wandering the park.
In “Acrimony,” we learn that, like his father and his father’s father before him, Arthur Winthrop is the headmaster at Vermont’s elite Lancaster School. As he’s being questioned, Arthur’s story unravels, but what begins as one thing morphs into something quite different.
In the second part, “Expectations,” we get his wife, Elizabeth’s, more reliable side of the story; and in the last (and much shorter) section, “After,” we see the sum—the aftermath—of the two other parts.
Part love story, part mystery and part tragedy, this is a remarkably crafted novel. It is, ultimately, a poignant look at how we deal with grief.
This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.