A New England boarding school for “really bright kids who’ve screwed up” proves a poor preparation for adult life.
Beattie (The Accomplished Guest, 2017, etc.) expertly captures the overheated atmosphere at Bailey Academy, where charismatic teacher Pierre LaVerdere selects a small group of students he considers capable of being trained to converse on his elevated intellectual level. Although protagonist Ben is one of “LaVerdere’s Leading Lights,” we see him from the novel’s earliest pages carefully looking for clues to what appropriate/expected behavior might be. Few solid values are evident to Ben and his classmates even before 9/11 reinforces their perception that nothing can be counted on in an uncertain world. They scatter to various elite colleges, and Ben graduates from Cornell with as little idea of what his interests and goals are as he had at Bailey. Beattie sketches the next 10 years of his life in an episodic narrative of jobs taken and discarded as randomly as lovers. (The only one who sticks for a while is Arly: drug-taking, emotionally abusive, brutally promiscuous, and a prime candidate for “Worst Girlfriend Ever.”) Ben’s only real commitment seems to be to the Hudson Valley town he moves to in 2011, gradually gentrified into an affluent exurb. Friends from Bailey turn up but are either evasive (former BFF Jasper) or exploitive (too-cool-for-school LouLou). For a long time, the novel seems as aimless as Ben, but slowly, with her characteristic cool precision, Beattie reveals a man who, for an array of complex reasons linked to Bailey and his childhood, has drawn from life the conclusion that “everybody leaves everybody.” When LaVerdere reappears with unwelcome revelations about the ways he is entangled in his former student’s past and present, Ben’s rage has multiple targets. A final scene with a fellow survivor of other people’s emotional wars suggests the faintest chance for a more rewarding connection, then declares it impossible “for every obvious reason.”
Obvious is one thing Beattie never is. Her elegantly sculpted tale is both wrenchingly sad and ultimately enigmatic: as usual.