Tag Archives: Teachers & students

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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Filed under Fiction, Whittal Zoe

The Colour of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy

“This is not a girl,”  he told himself. “This is a little chemical time bomb standing here in front of me, waiting to go off.”

One of the best things about blogging, is that I get tips about books that I might not have found otherwise. So for Irish author Conan Kennedy’s The Colour of Her Eyes, I owe a big thank you to Tom at A Common Reader. Tom posted a review of the book a few months back. I read the review, had a (generous) sample of the book sent to my kindle, and then ordered a copy. For N. American readers, this book came at the ridiculous give-away price of $2.99.

The Colour of Her Eyes is a crime novel, a hell of a suspenseful page-turner (or should I say button pusher since I read it on the Kindle). When the novel begins, we know that a crime has been committed, and we also know that it’s something quite ugly. The story unfolds through a series of interviews conducted by D.I. Harris, a member of the Sussex police with John Stanley Dexter, a well-to-do married, middle-aged businessman who 15 years or so earlier worked, unhappily,  as a teacher at Walthamstow  School. The interviews–written in the form of transcripts–alternate with Dexter’s memories of his past and Harris’s mordant ruminations as he investigates the case. Just what that ‘case’ is unfolds in time as the combative interviews play out. Here’s Harris interviewing, or should I say, interrogating Dexter about a girl who attended the school:

“I’m a tit man. And I’m telling you she was wearing a skimpy little top with her tits poking out one end and her belly the other. Am I right?”

“Not quite.”

“Where did I go wrong?”

“Well in those days you wouldn’t see their stomach. It wasn’t the fashion.”

“Ok. You’re the  expert. On underage girls. I’m only the amateur here. But I bet I’m half right. I bet her tits were falling out of her top.”

“It was pretty low cut, yes.”

“You in the fashion business, the rag trade?”

“You know I’m not.”

“Well stop saying things like it was pretty low cut. What we both mean is her fucking tits were falling out of her fucking top. Am I right?”

“Ok, you’re right.”

“Good. Now. So what do we have here. This little teenage poppet. Tits all over the shop. With nice thighs.”

“I didn’t say that. Didn’t say anything about thighs.”

“No you didn’t, but you said she was wearing a skirt.”

“That is not the same thing.”

“Did she not have nice thighs?”

And so it begins again.

Dexter’s memories take him 15 years back into the past to 1996 when he briefly worked as a 25-year-old teacher:

Six months teaching and already he hated the little fuckers. Oh ok, put it a bit more diplomatically, he just didn’t trust teenagers.

He’s chaperoning a disco, feeling he was “too fucking old to be at a teenagers’ disco”   when he meets a 15-year-old teenage jailbait of a temptress who calls herself Moonshine–a girl with remarkable green eyes:

She still didn’t smile, but looked at him intensely. A lot more intensely that he would have expected, with the vodka and drugs and whatever else. That look reminded him of some animal behind bars, in a zoo. There’s a moment when it suddenly catches your eyes. And you realise that you haven’t a clue who is in there. This was that moment. It shook him up a little, unnerved him a bit.

I don’t want to look into this girl’s eyes, he realised.

She’ll draw me in. And I’ll drown. And I’ll end up on a sex register.

As it turns out, and it comes as no surprise, teaching just isn’t Dexter’s calling. He moves on to the business world and as would fate would have it, 5 years after the disco, as a sales manager, he runs into Moonshine (real name Ruth Taylor) who’s waitressing, supporting a child and who’s been on the game. Dexter eventually becomes a rather well-heeled executive who owns a large country home with the baggage of all the material accoutrements–including a pony for one of his children and a wife who demands some ridiculously pretentious social markers. While Dexter may be comfortable financially, there’s something missing from his life. Meeting Ruth again is a momentous occasion which changes Dexter and Ruth’s lives for ever, and then, rather strangely, fate seems to throw them together again in five-year intervals.

These meetings–which may or may not be chance–occur over the years, and Dexter discusses them partly through the police interviews, and partly through memory. Perhaps due to Ruth’s cynicism and life experience, gradually the age gap between Dexter and Ruth appears to shrink. Meanwhile Dexter’s discontent with his wife, Yvette grows:

No, Dexter couldn’t really stand Yvette.

But she was good with the children, and he loved her for that. And he had loved her for all sorts of things too, once. So he loved her for that too.

“She’s volatile,” he said to his boss that night, that particular night after Yvette had stormed out of the room. Not that it had to be any particular night. Yvette stormed out of rooms quite a lot. But disagreement about EU politics was her starting gun for the current storm. Yvette thought most countries should be like Belgium. Only more so.

Due to the novel’s clever structure in which gems of information are parcelled out through police transcripts and memories, author Conan Kennedy creates intensity, suspense, and an irresistible desire to get to the truth. The truth however, proves to be elusive, and Harris’s frustrations with Dexter grow exponentially. When the story begins, Dexter seems to be the main character, but as the plot plays out, that role seems to shift to Harris. There’s no small amount of envy directed from Harris towards Dexter:

A bloke turning fifty with a good job seems to have most things already. Apart from time, and youth, and young women in the bed. Yes, apart from that sort of thing.

Harris looked at women. Pretty. And pretty much out of reach, to a detective inspector turning fifty. Glass between me and the stuff in the windows, he decided, and too much time between me and the girls. Out of reach. Well shit, maybe not completely out of reach. But much like the stuff in the shop windows. He didn’t really want them an awful lot, or need them much. But he watched them anyway.

Harris, who’s fifty, looking at a quiet retirement, and attracted to a young female PC is aware that some of his behaviour crosses or least comes dangerously close to the borders of sexual harassment. Perhaps this explains his barely camouflaged resentment of John Dexter because his suspect is a man who’s crossed the lines of various taboos more than once. Kennedy creates a massive amount of tension–tension between private and public lives, tension between what is desired and what is attainable, and tension between the haves and the have-nots. With this much tension, something’s got to give, and that’s where murder enters the picture. As Harris notes:

That’s a bad triangle. Women and money and revenge.

A great deal of the novel is set in the drabness of the seaside town of Bognor Regis, and somehow the descriptions of the deserted beach and its “long rows of empty deckchairs” suit the atmosphere of this moody psychological crime novel.  I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed in the ending and found myself with a lot of questions, but then, as I clicked to the final page….there’s a sequel! And no doubt some of the questions I have will find answers there. So… Conan, if you read this, where’s the sequel?

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Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Conan