What begins as the story of obsessive first love between drama students at a competitive performing arts high school in the early 1980s twists into something much darker in Choi’s singular new novel.
The summer between their freshman and sophomore years at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts—an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the [unnamed Southern] city” where they lived—Sarah and David consummate the romance that had been brewing the whole previous year. It is the natural culmination of the “taut, even dangerous energy running between them,” which—while naturally occurring—has been fostered by Mr. Kingsley, the head of Theatre Arts, who has positioned himself as the central figure in his students' lives, holding power not only over their professional futures, but their social ones as well: part parent, part guru, part master manipulator. But when Sarah and David return in the fall, their relationship instantly crumbles, and in the wake of their very public dissolution, Sarah finds herself increasingly isolated, dismissed into the shadows of CAPA life. Until, that spring, a British theater troupe comes to campus as part of a cultural exchange, and Sarah, along with her classmate Karen, begin parallel relationships with the English imports: Karen is in love with the director, and Sarah is uncomfortably linked to his protégé, the production’s star. It is, until now, a straightforward story, capturing—with nauseating, addictive accuracy—the particular power dynamics of elite theater training. And then, in the second part of the novel, Pulitzer finalist Choi (My Education, 2013, etc.) upends everything we thought we knew, calling the truth of the original narrative into question. (A short coda, set in 2013, recasts it again.) This could easily be insufferable; in Choi’s hands, it works: an effective interrogation of memory, the impossible gulf between accuracy and the stories we tell. And yet, as rigorous and as clever and as relevant as it is, the second half of the novel never quite reaches the soaring heights of the first. It’s hardly a deal breaker: the writing (exquisite) and the observations (cuttingly accurate) make Choi’s latest both wrenching and one-of-a-kind.
Never sentimental; always thrillingly alive.