In Zoe Whittall’s topical book The Best Kind of People, George Woodbury is a middle-aged married, respected exclusive preparatory school science teacher who inherited money, a lot of money, from his father. He has a claim to fame as the Connecticut teacher who took down a school shooter, so when he’s accused and subsequently arrested on criminal charges which include attempted rape of several underage girls, his story is BIG news. With George locked up awaiting trial, his wife, local trauma nurse, Joan, his teenage daughter Sadie, and his son Andrew have to deal with the fallout.
The novel begins with George and Joan enjoying a quiet evening at home when he tells her he’s been receiving anonymous “cryptic” notes in his school mailbox and that the school secretary warns him there’s a rumor he’s “being set up.” Within minutes, police come to the home and George is arrested on charges of “sexual misconduct with four minors, [and] attempted rape of a minor.” What then follows is a nightmare for George’s family. The Woodburys live in the most exclusive gated community in town, but reporters flock outside the gates, snapping photos as family members leave and return. Excrement, eggs and broken beer bottles are thrown over the hedges. Sadie is cruelly harassed at school, and Andrew, now a lawyer who lives in New York with his lover, Jared, returns to help. Joan’s acerbic, fiercely single sister Clara also descends on the home. At first, the family think George’s arrest is a mix up which will be quickly sorted out, but hours turn to days, and weeks turn to months….
We follow the family members as they each go through the process of learning about, and dealing with the accusations. Much of the book’s focus is on Sadie, the 17-year-old who is experimenting with sex through her relationship with her boyfriend, Jimmy, but then later she begins to have feelings for an older man who (stupidly) sends her all the wrong signals. And of course, ‘misreading signals’ or sending ‘wrong signals’ are trip wires in male-female relationships. There are those in Avalon Hills who think George’s accusers just outright lied, and those who defend George wonder if the girls somehow ‘got it wrong.’
In high school, Andrew had a sexual relationship with an older married coach. Andrew was 17 at the time, and in his mind, nothing criminal occurred. Returning to Avalon Falls brings that affair back into focus, and it tends to make Andrew more open to the possibility that his father is guilty of the charges, or at the very least, that he has have a secret life that no one knows about.
Although the novel concerns the Woodburys in the community, there are really only a handful of characters to worry about here. Perhaps the cleverest addition character wise is Kevin, a one time ‘hot’ author who is floundering on his second novel. He lives with (and off) Jimmy’s mother, Elaine. He comes to the conclusion that George is guilty as there was something off about the man–a total lack of self-awareness and also he was a little too perfect:
George always struck Kevin as an intimidating figure, who was nonetheless approachable and jovial. He used to joke about him with Elaine, that he didn’t seem real. He’d seemed too perfect, too good a husband, not enough darkness.
On the opposite side of the fence, the school secretary Dorothy is an activist with a men’s movement which boasts slogans such as: Just because you regret it doesn’t mean it’s rape. One of the members thinks that George “is a symbol of all that feminism has done to cause hysteria in this world.”
Inappropriate sexual behaviour is at the core of the story. We come to news stories with opinions, past experiences and beliefs. We’re human–it’s what we do, and so everyone in Avalon Hills, Connecticut has an opinion (his wife had to know, the girls involved are slutty, etc). Even withholding opinion (as in ‘innocent until proven guilty’) is still taking sides. as far as the residents are concerned. The case is like a storm that whips everybody’s opinions out into the open; the case is no longer about the victims, or George and what he may or may not have done.
There was a lot I liked about the novel; It’s well-nuanced. Loved the loaded ‘support’ Joan receives. A basket of fruit and a card from the nurses at Joan’s work is delivered shortly after the news of George’s arrest becomes public knowledge:
The card read, I hope you’re hanging in there, and it was signed by all the nurses at work. Accompanying it were a pamphlet for victims’ services, one for a support group for women survivors of violence, and another for a group of women with loved ones in prison.
I sometimes think of news reports that interview neighbours who live next to a suspected pedo. Do you want to be the one who goes on camera saying you always knew there was something weird about him? Or would you rather say he seemed normal and you noticed nothing?
Could have done without the details of Sadie’s sex life–that’s not a prudish comment just an observation. She’s a major character and since some of her father’s accusers are her age (or younger) she is impacted in a way her mother isn’t, but details about the blow jobs and the hands jobs were boring. I wished there had been more focus on Joan. Also, given the brevity of the charges, it seems highly unlikely that Joan wouldn’t have dug through the family finances from the moment George was carted from the house. Or perhaps that’s just me. Along that same line of thought, at one point, fairly deep into the novel, one of the characters mentally voices an opinion about the witness statements. Joan’s reaction to the evidence and witness statements is vague and never really addressed. Perhaps she doesn’t want to know, but for this reader this seemed manipulated to facilitate plot.
I read some comments from readers who thought the novel ended too abruptly. I didn’t have that reaction; I thought the understated ending was extremely powerful. The author succeeds in showing that no one walks away unchanged by this event.