An acclaimed American author looks at sexual abuse.
On a warm summer night in the 1970s, teenage Jo convinces her two best friends, Carly and Stephanie, to steal a golf cart at the country club and go for a drunken joy ride. Jo is behind the wheel, so she is the one responsible when an accident leaves Stephanie dead. Jo and her family become outcasts in their small Maryland suburb, so it seems like a stroke of luck when Jo is accepted into an elite boarding school in Massachusetts. Hawthorne is full of kids from Manhattan, the children of the rich and famous. Jo left home because she had become an outcast, but she’s no more welcome in her new school than she was in her hometown. The only person who takes much interest in her is a charismatic English teacher the students simply refer to as “Master.” Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that his attention isn’t the good kind. Much of Jo’s story will be depressingly predictable to most readers, from a powerful man using his position to prey on children to the skeptical, largely untroubled reaction Jo receives when she tries to tell a school administrator what happened to her. But Walbert doesn’t bring much that’s new or thought-provoking to this familiar tale. Part of the trouble is formal. Walbert is well-known for both her short fiction and novels-in-stories like The Sunken Cathedral (2015) and Our Kind (2004). Her new book is being marketed as a novel; at 160 pages, it’s more of a novella, but what it really feels like is a short story that outgrew the form without quite becoming something else. There are flashbacks to the night of the accident that add nothing since what happened is not a mystery; Jo begins her narration with a thorough account of that night. There is also a superabundance of information about Hawthorne—its history, its traditions—when all the reader needs to know is that it’s a New England prep school. Most problematic, though, is the emotional flatness of the story, which is particularly disappointing from a writer as skilled at illuminating the inner lives of women as Walbert.
Timely but not the author’s finest work.