We should never take for granted the risk-taking novelist. Open your book with a man disrobing in snowy, daylight Central Park, and you send the reader a clear signal to regard you warily. Anything might happen. The burden then falls to the writer to use that power judiciously, for each successive surprise threatens to either make a lesser impact or send the book veering into the realm of melodrama.
Thomas Christopher Greene is fearless in deploying surprises. I will attempt to avoid revealing them here. They deserve to have their full impact when the reader encounters them. Less fortunate: those surprises are the most successful part of the book.
On its face, The Headmaster’s Wife is concerned with Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of a small, prestigious private school in Vermont, his wife and a girl named Betsy Pappas, or so we’re led to believe. There’s a tragedy lurking behind him, and Arthur takes measures to lessen its impact on him, as does his wife, though he can’t seem to fathom her approach.
There’s no question Greene knows the elite-school milieu, both from his own academic background and his current professional position at the head of the well-regarded Vermont College of Fine Arts. If Greene found the prospect of a private-school campus novel too staid and opted to surprise, that’s a perfectly defensible choice. It’s just possible, though, that he underestimated his own ability to take a seemingly prosaic set of circumstances and elevate them in a straightforward manner. Arthur and Betsy’s assignations, as taken from Arthur’s memory, are finely drawn and memorable. His gradual unraveling is more compelling before we learn the full truth of its implications.
There is a sense that Greene works carefully at the sentence level, and that care produces some memorable lines. A favorite: “At dusk we cross the Zakim Bridge, ship like with lights strung across its high curved beams.” That degree of mastery makes the repeated instances of ready-made language Greene resorts to all the more difficult to accept. He is far too skilled a writer to reach for the merely handy, as when we’re told, of a plot to secure time for an illicit meeting with a new lover, “The amazing thing is that it comes to me on the spur of the moment.” In fairness, perhaps this language register is meant to reinforce the ordinariness of Arthur as a man. He is earthbound, a mere functionary rather than an inspiring leader. The board of the school is losing faith in his focus and initiative.
Granted, there is a danger in overstating these things when considering a novel. It’s not subject to the same strictness as short fiction. A smeared brushstroke here and there is forgivable. It’s harder to overlook when the picture as a whole takes on a smudged look.
At its heart, The Headmaster’s Wife has a set of large concerns, and there are moments when its author treats those with great skill and insight. But the book’s center of gravity shifts several times, and not merely as a function of changes in point-of-view. In the end, the reader is left with an unexpected tableau, as well as a lingering uncertainty that this is where we should’ve arrived, with these characters. For me, it was an unearned ending. I simply can’t help feeling that, in this case, the risks outweigh the investment in character development. That is to say, the novel is more accomplished in terms of form than content, a balance which would work better if it were truly experimental.
And it bears mentioning that the book has received not just good reviews thus far, but raves. Certainly it has merit, and it’s a book Greene has invested much in emotionally. It emerged from a personal tragedy, and I would like to say that it’s an unqualified success as a novel. Instead, the makings of an emotionally resonant, straightforward novel are hidden beneath this tricky scaffolding. In the end, I’m merely a single, dissenting voice, and Greene is in full-stride in what is already an undeniably accomplished career. The Headmaster’s Wife doesn’t strike me as the best place to start with his work, but there’s more than enough here to make me curious about where he goes next.
– John McIntyre