Life is so often not what we expect. We are conditioned to believe that if we behave in particular ways, the results and rewards will fall within certain parameters; predictable, with challenges for which there are practical solutions. But, of course, that is all too often entirely untrue. Life can be a horrifyingly scary thing; one after another shock, disappointment, loss and trauma with which one deals the best one can, which is, sometimes, not very well at all. Life is, in fact, rarely ever what we expect, and the lives of others rarely ever what they appear to be from outside looking in.
In Thomas Christopher Greene’s riveting new novel, The Headmaster’s Wife, (CLICK HERE FOR THE ST. MARTIN’S PRESS BOOK/AUTHOR PAGE) the reader is taken on a whirlwind ride from the moment the headmaster of “Vermont’s elite Lancaster School”, Arthur Winthrop, is found wandering naked in Central Park and begins to tell his story to the interrogating officers. The journey is complex, marked by emotional devastation, the collision of good intention with the reality of life’s inevitable setbacks, and the efforts of good, decent people to cope with the feelings of impotence in the face of personal disaster.
I won’t give you any more of the plot as I do not want to spoil it for you, and Greene has managed to compose the symphony of loss in such a way that the reader is – like the characters within – also knocked for loops, your belief about what is going on is shaken, shattered, and one’s assumptions upended. The writing is facile and deeply felt, both technically adept and emotionally charged. I had some issues with the ending, not unlike the issues I had when reviewing Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen (READ THAT HERE) in that it seemed too convenient, too far-fetched a stretch of serendipitous, fortuitous fate which seemed, somehow, dishonest as finale to such a scathingly heartfelt story told so unsparingly and with such insight. Listen:
And then she realizes that they are more alike than she has imagined. Like her, he is broken. And she thinks perhaps this is what love is: letting someone else see the part of you that shatters like glass. All of us are broken in our own way. And in that moment, on her birthday, looking over the black trees to the bright lights of the other side, she knows she will marry Arthur. They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as they both don’t completely shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground.
That is a hauntingly insightful precis of what constitutes so many loves, so much of life. It is a wisdom earned by having journeyed through a certain amount of pain, having had to make painful and questionable compromises, having learned that there is no black and white, that life is, quite determinedly, in many ways, gray.
This is a well-written book for grown-ups. Fast (be prepared to stay up all night reading it, you won’t want to stop) and cinematic in its scene set-ups and intensity. I recommend it.