This month was our first attempt in eleven years with the open discussion format versus a “structured” review/recap/analysis. Our small band of loyals (15 Bookers) rose to the occasion and we were pleased that The Headmaster’s Wife provided bountiful fodder to nibble.
“What’s the book about?”
There is no right or wrong answer, but here’s what the group gathered from reading this novel.
Grief was a popular answer. The author began this novel in the neonatal intensive care unit in the summer of 2009. His second daughter born prematurely with lungs incapable of functioning only lived six months, but in that short time, she touched so many lives. What began as a novel of grief evolved into a testimonial to her courage and fearlessness. Narrative dotted throughout the book expanded on this theme, “Grief, it numbs you. Nothing tastes good, nothing smells good, sleep is elusive…it grows like a virus and takes over.” The novel explores the tragedy of the loss of a child, the ties of family and place, and how grief dictates what the mind absorbs and how it processes that sorrow. It asks, “What happens if you don’t hold it together?” What happens if life completely falls apart?” We wondered how grief connects to mental illness and how easily the mind adjusts to the reality you create for yourself. Parent’s grief over the loss of a child is different….often never recovering from the loss. “What is the only thing a parent needs to do? Make sure your children live longer than you do.”
Forgiveness: What goes around comes around. Arthur set up his “enemy” Russell in order to remove him as an obstacle in his pursuit of Betsy. In the end, Russell felt obliged to save Arthur from confinement inside a State mental institution. Why? Maybe selfishly, to insert himself back into Betsy’s life, or because he chose to be a better man, whatever the motive, he forgave Arthur.
It stands “as a moving elegy to the power of love as an antidote to grief:” It’s a mournful poem of marriage beginning with a couple “wanting to climb inside the other person and wear her skin as your own. Only to end with thinking if the person across from you says another word you’ll put a fork in her neck – or somewhere in between.” They grow old together, are broken together, but as long as “they don’t shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground, but “Time is malleable. Memory fails. Memory changes.”
Expectations: When their son Ethan was born, Elizabeth and Arthur had different expectations for the child. She wants to shield him from everything. He’s an average student, nothing exceptional which is OK with her. Arthur wants him to suffer as much as he did under his own father’s expectations, to be the top of the class and excel at sports. Ethan has “high emotional intelligence.” Arthur would prefer “high regular intelligence.”
Entitlement and Peter Pan: All that was required of Arthur to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather was to graduate from college. He didn’t have to excel, just secure the degree and assume the role he was groomed for. When Betsy and Arthur reconnect they both became comfortable “being naked both in the biblical sense and seeing each other’s flaws.” She finds herself back in Lancaster, a faculty wife knowing they most likely won’t live anywhere else. She loved the structure of the school year, not having to worry about cooking, cleaning, paying bills…you can be an adult without any of the responsibility. “I won’t grow up.” She originally thought having a child would change things in her ideal world, but “not doing what you were born to do is like turning your back on the ocean for no other reason than that you dislike beauty.” Nathan’s birth changed her life all right. Selfishness flew out the window and the joys of motherhood took over.
Loose morals set the tone from the beginning: We form an opinion of Arthur Winthrop, fifty-seven years old, and a third-generation headmaster of an elite New England boarding school, and it’s not a pretty picture. He’s obsessed with an eighteen-year old female student, Betsy Pappas, taking advantage of his position, verging on stalker status, to seduce her. He’s a liar, a drunk, a lonely cheating husband, a distraught father failing miserably at handling the loss of his son and incapable of comforting his grieving wife. “I’m a sad needy puppy. I am a boy clinging to his mother’s apron; I am the teenager experiencing the pangs of love for the first time.” Yuk.
The style of writing – creative, unique, but very confusing, a downer: The opening section, entitled Acrimony is Arthur’s first-person narrative. He’s remembering a day twenty years ago with his wife Elizabeth and their five-year old son, Ethan, enjoying a day in Central Park. Then, the scene switches to the police station. Arthur, arrested for wandering around the Park naked, says, “This is how it starts.” His unstable mental health clearly on display throughout the police investigation makes the case that he is an unreliable narrator. This novel is one story told through two points of view.
What is an unreliable narrator? In fiction, it’s generally a protagonist, almost always written in first-person, who in telling the story sounds delusional and untruthful or within the context of his recollection, you suspect he is mentally ill, immature, or he tells you he is. Such as Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, he admits to being “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life,” add his age and his skewed viewpoint of life and he’s as untrustworthy as they come. Huckleberry Finn and Forrest Gump were also narrators whose perception is immature or limited through their point of views. Gone Girl is another example, but with two unreliable narrators…alternating accounts of Nick Dunne and the diary entries of his wife, asking the reader… Who do you trust?
This novel is a masterpiece of deception as we’re tossed into a distasteful tale of a ‘dirty old man’ in an affair with young lady and about half-way through the book, the OMG moment arrives in the form of an old adversary, turned savior. The next section, Expectations, is the other side of the story, narrated from the third-person perspective of Arthur’s wife – Betsy aka Elizabeth. The final section, After, is the dénouement – the final resolution of the complex sequence of events in the novel where we find Arthur being committed to a mental institution and Russell and Betsy eating sushi in his apartment in New York. Russell asks her why she didn’t succeed in drowning…she says she doesn’t know the reason but after flinging herself into the river, she knew she couldn’t do it….why, maybe she had something to look forward to after all? “The winter sheds its skin every spring.” She shed her skin when she first came to Lancaster, the day she became Betsy, and again when she married, moved into the big white house as the headmaster’s wife, and with the birth of Nathan. A molting might come with a life with Russell…a glimmer of hope for their future…ends the novel.
As always the group shared experiences with forms of dementia and mental illness and being able to tell our own stories is therapeutic for all those dealing with these issues…a commonality of heartache among friends.
MN and I appreciate your contribution to this discussion and thank you for giving this novel a chance to shine by letting us grow as readers.
On the business side:
Please note the March meeting date has changed to March 3rd instead of the 10th. We still do not have a selection for that month and will decide in February.
We are considering The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and their epic quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown for our summer read. It’s a non-fiction that reads like a novel. Solid five stars on Amazon and over seven thousand reviews. Set during the Depression in the then small nondescript town of Seattle, it tracks a rowing team’s triumphant march into Hitler’s Olympics.
COLOR CODING SYSTEM
WHITE: LIGHT READ
PINK: MODERATELY CHALLENGING
February 10th: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Home of Jean Alexander
Reviewer: Barbara Creach
March 3rd : Note earlier date
No book selected
Home of Joanna Linder
April 14th: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Home of Kay Robinson
Reviewer: Jean Alexander
May 19th: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Home of Beverly Dossett
Reviewer: Beverly Dossett
Summer Break: June, July & August
September 8th: Bookers 12th year
“What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable?” Food for deep thought.