Tag Archives: connecticut

The Best Kind of People: Zoe Whittall

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. 

review copy

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The Invaders: Karolina Waclawiak

“We were far away enough from New York to feel like we were in a different world, but close enough to have successful commuter husbands. In the evenings, I’d see a row of pursed-lipped wives idling their cars in the parking lot of the commuter rail station, watching their bar-car-riding husbands stagger off the train.”

I am fascinated by housing estates, preferably gated communities, for the conformity, and equally bizarre behaviour environment seems to imprint on residents, and this explains my decision to read The Invaders, a second novel from Karolina Waclawiak. The novel is set in an exclusive Connecticut housing community, and unfolds over the course of a summer through two narrative voices–the 40-something once trophy wife, Cheryl and her troubled stepson, Teddy. Through these two voices, we see Little Neck Cove, a paranoid, affluent community which on the surface appears to be sedate, orderly, and enviable, but underneath the parties and the fashions shows runs fear of aging, affairs to establish continued desirability, backstabbing, and various addictions–all against the threat of invasion from the dreaded plebs.

The novel begins intriguingly with Cheryl’s abashed confession that “when Jeffrey’s first wife told me he had a voracious appetite for women, I assumed she was just trying to be vindictive.” That’s a natural enough conclusion, but it’s a statement that comes back to haunt Cheryl. Married to Jeffrey for almost ten years, Cheryl still walks in the shadow of his first, now dead wife, Joanne, and Cheryl has every reason to find herself thinking about Joanne–the woman she replaced. Cheryl and Jeffrey once had a passionate relationship, but now they exist in a “state of indifference.” They no longer have sex, and Jeffrey, with long unexplained absences from home, sees Cheryl as an irritating presence more than anything else. Cheryl, now 44,  senses that the marriage is over and that her status as trophy wife has morphed into an imminent expiration date. Suffering from insomnia, Cheryl has taken to long solitary walks along the private beaches or the community nature trail.

the invadersIn spite of the fact that Cheryl has tried to conform to the standards of behaviour and dress set by the other wives of Little Neck Cove, she’s never quite belonged. We see her at the Little Neck Cove fashion show which is attended by the wives of the community, women who shop for sherbet-coloured clothing they don’t need in desperate attempts to retain their youth. The older the women become, the more chunky jewelry they wear to hide their wrinkled skin and blemishes.

We were now transitioning between desirable and undesirable–that sad moment when a woman realizes that absolutely no man is looking at her, not even a passing glance. It made us all paralyzed with fear.

We battled the decline with bright, exotic colors and bold prints–anything to draw that attention back to the curves of our bodies. Even if various parts had begun to hang or droop, at least men were looking. Men were easy after all, weren’t they?

Possibly the other wives resent that Cheryl replaced one of their own or possibly they sniff that Cheryl comes from a hardscrabble background. Affairs are a common occurrence that wives chose to ignore; that’s just one of the silent ‘rules.’

Christine found what she was looking for at the bottom of her purse. Her husband was a doctor who medicated her so she’d turn a blind eye to his side projects. We all knew it but didn’t say anything. No one took Christine’s hand and asked her if she was okay, we always just smiled politely and ignored her confused ramblings when we realized the dose for the day was too high. Although we were complicit in her humiliation, we were all concerned with ignoring our own.

Cheryl’s voice alternates with her stepson Teddy who arrives on the scene after being kicked out of college. Rather refreshingly, he likes his stepmother–although he notices her absorption into the community standard:

You’re looking more and more like the rest of them. All you’re missing is that leathery tan and a fluorescent onesie like old Elaine.

As the summer wears on, Teddy, who takes certain privileges for granted, is expected to begin a job that his father arranges. Cheryl keeps avoiding the subject of divorce, and ultimately both Teddy and Cheryl sink into self-destructive spirals. Teddy’s rebellion takes the form of a drug habit and chasing after one of the young mothers while Cheryl begins making anonymous dirty phone calls to various male neighbours. Meanwhile when a stray Mexican fisherman wanders onto the private beach, all hell breaks loose in the neighbourhood as paranoia reigns. Ironically, of course, while the residents see “being poor meant desperation, it meant being a criminal,” the threat against the community comes from somewhere else entirely.

Author Karolina Waclawiak creates a portrait of an affluent, conformist community, where women’s self-worth is rooted in their ability to attract, and hold, men. Cheryl, who was an assistant manager of the men’s department of an outlet store before she met Jeffrey, gave up her job, and even her family, in order to marry ‘up.’ Now at 44, that decision isn’t looking so good to Cheryl. The words of advice her mother, an expert on the subject, gave her regarding the fickleness of men float back into her consciousness at crucial moments.

The character of Jeffrey never came alive–even though he moved in and out of the novel, and his actions towards the end didn’t seem to mesh with his earlier stance. While I disliked the ending which was too surreal for my tastes, I appreciated what the author is doing. There’s so much going on in the book–including tantalizing unexplored information about Joanne, a young Mexican girl, and Cheryl’s rogue mother, I asked myself if the book could possibly have been stronger if just written solely from Cheryl’s perspective. At times I had very little sympathy for her and at other times, I liked what I saw when she broke out with some aberrant behaviour.

“Here was me, wanting it everywhere.”

Review copy/own a copy

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Filed under Fiction, Waclawiak Karolina