A headmaster and his wife suffer intimations of mortality on a bucolic Vermont campus.
The first half of Greene’s fourth novel (Envious Moon, 2007, etc.) unfolds like a conventional academic tale. The third generation head of Lancaster, an exclusive Vermont prep school, Arthur Winthrop (his father, the former head, still lives on campus) leads an orderly life, except for occasional brushes with imperious board members whose New England pedigrees are even more elite than his own. However, Arthur’s marriage to Elizabeth (the couple is in their late 50s) has long since deteriorated into strained conversations and separate bedrooms. The couple was driven further apart when their only son, Ethan, opted for service in Iraq instead of college. Since Ethan's departure, Elizabeth finds solace only in obsessive tennis playing. Arthur’s obsession is a student, 18-year-old Betsy Pappas, whose unconventional beauty, but most of all youth, fascinates him. He lures her to Boston on a pretext and seduces her. However, she soon tires of what she considers a training exercise with an older man and tries to disengage by dating a star basketball player, Russell Hurley, who attends Lancaster on scholarship. Arthur first tries to blackmail Betsy into continuing their affair by hiding alcohol under Russell’s dorm bed but then, somewhat arbitrarily, allows disciplinary matters to take their course. Russell is expelled, and his one chance of breaking out of the working class and into the Ivy League has been dashed. Italicized interludes throughout reveal that Arthur has been picked up by NYC police after being found wandering naked in Central Park. Just as we begin to understand that this is no ordinary interrogation, the novel takes a wholly unexpected twist, which is then compounded by another, even more surprising one. Up to this point, readers will suspect only that the story could be taking place anytime in the last 40 years or so.
Although the puzzle element threatens to overwhelm the narrative, this is a moving testament to the vicissitudes of love and loss, regret and hope.