Trust Exercise by Susan Choi is a challenge when it comes to making sense of it all, but I highly recommend it for book groups as it allows for interesting discussion.
The book is in three distinct parts, similar to Assymetry by Lisa Halliday. Part 1 is narrated by Sarah, a student at a high school for the performing arts. She and David, another student, are in a budding romantic relationship, with typical teenage angst and miscommunication. Their theater teacher, Mr. Kingsley, takes notice, and uses the power and respect he has from his students to interfere by creating inappropriate situations (trust exercises) in the classroom that, for the students and the reader, feel uncomfortable and abusive in nature. Visiting high school kids and their young adult teacher from England join the activities and odd relationships and unconventional friendships form.
Part 2 of Trust Exercise is narrated by “Karen”, another student at the school, who may or may not really be who she says she is. Her recount of all that occurred in the performing arts high school is very different from Sarah’s, and as readers we are challenged to understand who is telling the truth. The question of consent comes up in each relationship author Susan Choi writes about, whether it is between two students, or a student and teacher.
Part 3 takes place years ahead and seems unrelated until the very end where we see how the entire story is tied together. Trust Exercise is a story about coming of age at a performing arts high school where all things physical and sexual are confusing, and communication can be misleading. Inappropriate use of power is at the heart of this book, and relationships and affairs that happen to the students during this important time of maturity have an impact on their entire lives.
Who narrates this story and how reliable are they? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examining Trust Exercise, but the process searching for the truth in this work of fiction is worth the time. I enjoyed discussing this one with my book group.
About the Author:
Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, and her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.
With David Remnick she co-edited the anthology Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker, and her non-fiction has appeared in publications such as Vogue, Tin House, Allure, O, and The New York Times and in anthologies such as Money Changes Everything and Brooklyn Was Mine.
A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, Pete Wells and their sons Dexter and Elliot