Trust Exercise has won the National Book Award for fiction for the year, and, in my opinion, it is a well-deserved recognition of a remarkable work. It is a book that engages both emotions and intellect and I found it easy to lose myself in it.
The story is set in a sprawling southern city that is never named but sounds an awful lot like Houston to me. Moreover, the narrative tells the stories of a group of students attending an acclaimed high school for the performing arts unlike any other in the region and that would be Houston's High School for the Performing Arts.
Choi's students attend high school in the '80s and her description of the social environment of the period seems spot-on. These are theater students who are continually evolving and learning who they are in relationship to others.
Part of their learning process takes place in the class of their charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley, during "trust exercises" in which two students sit knee to knee facing each other and repeat sentences while staring deeply into each other's eyes. At such times they can begin to feel as if they are the only two people in the world. But the trust exercise extends and expands into their lives.
The main focus of this part of the narrative is two students, Sarah and David, who become totally smitten and obsessed with each other. But in the way of teenage romances, this one unravels and completely upends Sarah's life. She loses not only her boyfriend but her best girlfriend and becomes something of an outcast in the unforgiving society of high school, making her vulnerable to be preyed upon by the unscrupulous.
And that is what happens when a troupe of young British actors comes to town to put on a production of Candide. She becomes an easy sexual target for one of the creepy older members of the group.
The narrative builds slowly, piece by piece, experience by experience, in exquisite detail, and, although I was well past high school by the '80s, I was right there with Sarah and the other students as they transitioned through the period.
But that's only the first half of the book.
Choi then upends her story entirely, moving it forward by a dozen or so years. We meet some of the students again as fully formed adults and find that maybe we totally misunderstood what was happening in that first half. Although it is a bit disorienting at first, we soon settle in with our enhanced understanding of the events of high school and of how they have influenced these characters' later lives.
I don't want to give too much away, but suffice to say that the author finds a way to address what has gone before, including the sexism and male privilege of certain adults and the duplicity of certain "friends". Revenge may be best served cold, but it can be very sweet indeed.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars