Reviewed by Victoria Best
I do love a book with a really good jaw-dropping twist, and goodness me does The Headmaster’s Wife have one of those. But a device that’s great to read can make writing about the book a tad tricky. I really don’t want to give anything away here, so this will be less a review than a collection of clues and signposts that tell you something about this novel but don’t necessarily point you in the right direction.
We begin with a startling frame narrative. An otherwise respectable and staid headmaster in late middle-age is arrested when he takes a walk, naked, through a snowy Central Park. Arthur Winthrop runs an elite prep school in Vermont, as his father did before him. He has had a long and happy marriage to his wife, Elizabeth, and they have a son, Ethan, who has recently joined the Army. But as he begins to answer the detective’s questions, it becomes clear that something has gone badly wrong in his life.
The narrative then takes us back to the immediate past, and Arthur’s strange and compelling passion for a student in his Russian literature class, Betsy Pappas. He is as intrigued by her mind as he is bewitched by her body, and the obsession he feels for her leads him into doing things he knows he shouldn’t. And yet as strange as his behaviour is the ease with which he gets away with it:
‘I pause in front of each window and look in, and while part of me knows there is something entirely untoward about the headmaster staring into the windows of the upper-class girls’ dorms, I am unfazed by it tonight. Not a single girl as much as looks up. I am an apparition.’
Pulling rank in ways he is aware are unethical, he arranges to spend extra-curricular time with her, and before long is lost to a devastating affair. There are hints that his adultery is a symptom of something, but it’s unclear what.
‘I am fixated on her face, as if somewhere in those sad eyes resides a clue as to why her pulling her hair behind her ears has made me notice her in a way that tells me that it has been a long time since I have noticed anything at all.’
His competence is being challenged, gently at the moment, by his board, and his wife is pursuing him for a conversation he doesn’t want to have. ‘”You have to deal with this, Arthur,’ Elizabeth says. “You cannot just ignore it.”’ And then Betsy quickly loses interest in him, swapping her attention to a tall, handsome sports star, a fellow student, the kind of man Arthur has never been. Arthur is a man with a lot of hidden issues and no limits. How far will he go to get what he wants?
The second half of this book is narrated by Elizabeth, the headmaster’s wife, and in this section the reader is guided through the same events from a quite unexpected and deeply startling perspective. In a way it reminded me of Carol Shield’s brilliant novel, Happenstance, which also concerns a marriage and is written in two halves. In that novel you have to turn the book over and upside down to read the alternative persective. In this novel, your own sense of events is turned over and upside down while you are reading.
I noticed this novel shelved in the crime section of my local bookshop, and while the early part of the story might lead you to think this is so, it is in fact a complete misdirect. This is not a sensational novel in the manner of Gone Girl. It is a profound and moving story, written in a lucid and elegiac style, with no tricks other than clever, poignant storytelling. I found it very gripping and very fast to read, pulled forward by the compulsion to find out what happens next, even though I feared it might be tragic.
One final twist and one final potential red herring: almost the most moving part of the novel happens after its end, when the author describes the circumstances under which the book was written. Thomas Christopher Greene began it in the neonatal intensive care unit, watching over his premature newborn for the six months that she lived. It is extraordinary to think that he could have transformed his real grief into fictional grief with such intelligence and insight. And that he could have found it in himself to give him novel such a tenderly hopeful conclusion.
Thomas Christopher Greene, The Headmaster’s Wife (Corvus, May 2014), 978-1782391715, 288 pages, trade paperback.