In the High Peaks

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Testimony, The Novel, and The Real Story

Anita Shreve is not one of my favorite authors, but over the years from time to time, I've been drawn to read more than a handful of her novels. I agree that she's been pigeon-holed to stand outside of the realm of "literary fiction." And it's true that sometimes her work appears deceptively easy. But I've never been fooled by those who have looked down on her writing. Shreve may not be great, but she's a good, solid writer.

I picked up Testimony (2008) last Saturday because it received far better reviews than her latest effort, A Change in Altitude. When Testimony first appeared, I didn't want to touch it. I was annoyed that Shreve had based the novel on a sex scandal that rocked the posh prep school Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, back in 2005. (Shreve is a Massachusetts resident, and so was I at the time of the incident.) When the story broke in The Boston Globe, it appeared just below the fold on page one. Everybody talked about it. One 15-year-old girl servicing five sport-star upperclassmen? You're kidding, right? Who was the victim? Who the perps? Were they all equally innocent or equally guilty? The debate raged.

I grew tired of the media mash by its second week and shut out the details of the rest of the case, but I do recall that the five male students were expelled. I don't recall the consequences for the female student.

Back to Testimony. Shreve's signature is her focus on a devastating life incident and its effects on the lives of all her characters. In other words, she examines how one event triggers many actions and reactions, leading to a locomotive gone wild off the tracks to a disastrous collision. Each character is affected according to their life history, relationships, personality, and individual character.

She has come close to perfecting this gaze in Testimony, a novel well worthy of a reader's time. Of course, the novel does not take place in Massachusetts, but at an imaginary prep school in Vermont.

If you're looking for two journalists' and former alumnae's take on the real story at Milton Academy, check out Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley (2007).

Oh, by the way, my Shreve fave? Resistance is far and away one of her best.

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