Once Upon a Time in New England

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Testimony By Anita ShreveAvery Academy is located in a sleepy little Vermont town and is exactly the sort of place parents send their children in the hope of keeping them away from the wilder temptations of the ‘real world’. Tucked amongst beautiful hills and offering lots of healthy outdoor pursuits and with plenty of out of hours noble activities (music, drama, lots of sports) it’s the kind of place where time seems to stand still. The changing of the colours of the leaves in autumn are about the most exciting changes this place has seen in years.

The best laid plans of mice and men and parents alike often go astray. Whether your kids are growing up in a rough part of the inner city or closeted away in the cosiness of an exclusive place of education, they’re still kids and prone to do what kids will do. And what kids will do is go to parties, drink too much and now and then behave ‘inappropriately’. In the opening pages of Anita Shreve’s ‘Testimony’, Mike, the headmaster of Avery Academy is about to find out just how badly things can go wrong and how the follies of one night can reverberate far beyond the walls of his school and change the lives of those involved and those around them forever.

Mike has just been passed a video by his secretary with a warning that he really does need to give it his immediate attention. In the film three young men and a pretty young woman are doing what young men and young women sometimes do – though admittedly not always in foursomes and rarely on film. As the film rolls on the faces come into view and Mike is horrified – one is the son of a local family who are his good friends, another is a boy who’s just been offered a place at one of the best colleges in New England and the third is doing a ‘postgraduate’ year before taking up a basketball scholarship. It’s bad enough that boys he trusted and respected are engaging in such activity but things are about to get much worse. The girl who appears to be having such a ‘good time’ becomes recognisable as one of the school’s ‘freshmen’ which means she’s just 14 years old. In Vermont sex with an underage girl is classified as ‘sexual assault’ and the boys are in big trouble.

Over the course of 305 pages Shreve presents us with the ‘testimonies’ of the players in this particular smutty little drama including the boys, their parents, the staff at the school, the girl at the centre of the ‘assault’, her room mate, even a journalist and the local police chief. More than twenty different characters chip in to give us their take on the events of that cold winter night. Hopping back and forth between the alleged assault, the events running up to what happened and the shocking aftermath, Shreve attempts to peel away the layers of what happened and more importantly perhaps, why it happened.

“At times I had to check the cover because I was lulled into thinking this was just another Jodi Picoult novel…”

I usually rather like Anita Shreve – most of her books are excellent and she does a pretty good line in multiple character narrative but some things just didn’t work for me in this book. Firstly there were just too many people giving their accounts of the events – I struggled to get any real feeling or empathy for most of them and many of the ‘voices’ were just too similar. Those that weren’t – especially the unpleasant little ‘victim’ and one of the boys – were just too clichéd and corny. I struggled to find anyone to really care about in such a large cast of characters.

A lot more could have been made of the debate around whether or not the girl ‘asked for it’ and what impact that might or might not have had on the consequences. The girl is painted very much in black and white – she’s bad, she’s a liar and she knew exactly what she was doing and cried ‘rape’ when she realised she was in trouble. This could and perhaps should have been a much more complex evaluation of whether and why she really did lead the boys on but it wasn’t raised – we were shown she was bad and just left to condemn her without any shades of grey.

I spotted a lot of the plot long before I think I was supposed to. As soon as you realise that one of the main protagonists isn’t giving any testimony and all his words are from letters to his girlfriend, you can’t help but draw your own conclusions about what might have happened. You can also tell that the headmaster’s life has changed beyond recognition but piecing together why he should feel so responsible takes time and ultimately left me thinking that I didn’t actually care all that much.

At times I had to check the cover because I was lulled into thinking this was just another Jodi Picoult novel – it contained all the ‘moral dilemna’ positioning that makes me find her books so irritating but sadly little of the shock and revelation I expect from Anita Shreve. I was deeply disappointed by this rather shallow little book which was just very much ‘of its type’ – a genre novel with few surprises or twists. It’s a dangerous tactic to wham all your ‘shock value’ on the table in the first few pages and I felt it was a risky technique and one which fell badly flat for me in this book.

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by Anita Shreve

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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