BOOK REVIEW | The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whithall | Scotiabank Giller Prize Shortlist

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
What if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable?

George Woodbury, an affable teacher and beloved husband and father, is arrested for sexual impropriety at a prestigious prep school. His wife, Joan, vaults between denial and rage as the community she loved turns on her. Their daughter, Sadie, a popular over-achieving high school senior, becomes a social pariah. Their son, Andrew, assists in his father’s defense, while wrestling with his own unhappy memories of his teen years. A local author tries to exploit their story, while an unlikely men’s rights activist attempts to get Sadie onside their cause. With George locked up, how do the members of his family pick up the pieces and keep living their lives? How do they defend someone they love while wrestling with the possibility of his guilt?

With exquisite emotional precision, award-winning author Zoe Whittall explores issues of loyalty, truth, and the meaning of happiness through the lens of an all-American family on the brink of collapse.

My thoughts:
This is a difficult book to review, given its subject matter. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I found a few elements distracting. The topic covered is so important, and I don’t want this review to take away from that.

The Best Kind of People tells the story of the Woodbury’s, a well off and well respected family. Things change dramatically for the family, however, when patriarch George is accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour with some of the young girls at the school where he teaches. This is a look at how a family is impacted by a loved one’s crimes, and I absolutely loved this concept. We follow George’s wife, Joan, and children, Sadie and Andrew, as they walk through a very uncertain path. When something this tragic happens, how are the remaining family members affected?

Whithall is a Canadian writer, and there is something about this book that feels distinctly Canadian to me, even though it is not set here. Little things that make it feel like this happened close to home. In particular, the character Anna Lansing, a woman Joan met at a support group, and her husband Richard reflected upon a very famous and disturbing case that non-Canadian readers may not have known about. A couple of years ago Colonel Russell Williams was arrested for crimes almost exactly as described in this excerpt:

Two years ago, the high commander in the US Army has been tried and convicted for two murders and dozens more sexual assaults, as well as a string of break-ins and robberies of women’s garments.

Williams’ crimes went further and were incredibly disturbing. I won’t leave a link to the story, but a quick google search will fill in the blanks if you’re interested. I recall how people questioned what, if anything, his wife knew of his crimes. This is a huge element to Whithall’s narrative – is it really possible for a wife to be unaware of her husband’s crimes?

I found the first 1/3 of this book to be riveting; I was pulled in quickly and deeply invested in the story. Then, something waned – the writing started to feel sloppy, and I didn’t enjoy the facts and statistics that were thrown in as part of the dialogue. The message was getting crammed down my throat. We know that victims are often put through terrible scrutiny after coming forward, and this is so valuable to explore. I would love to read a well-drawn book that explores this injustice, please leave a recommendation below if you have one. This book touches on this topic, but it never really goes anywhere. Ultimately, the ending and the result of George’s trial does absolutely nothing to satisfy the reader – but I suppose that is the point? The ending was incredibly frustrating and rushed, but again, this could have been intentional.

I am really interested in Whithall as a writer, and will likely check out her next work. I think she has some awesome ideas and a skill set I’d like to see grow and develop. This is an important book that would have valued from some more aggressive editing.

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