Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press. Thank you!
Publication: August 27, 2016 by House of Anansi Press
Verdict: Very Good/Excellent
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.
Recently longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People was featured on my must reads for Fall 2016 series. As with some of my favourite Canadian authors- Miriam Toews and Mary Lawson to name but two- Whittall likewise takes on family, community and their crossing dynamics to close inspection. Here, in The Best Kind of People, Whittall takes a question- what would you do if your husband, the person you trusted most in the world, was accused of sexual assault against young women- and prods and peels one family’s caving shell in an unforgettable read.
When we first meet the Woodbury family, we meet two members as survivors and heroes. We meet daughter Sadie as a young girl and her father George, an idolized community member, teacher, and husband. After being hailed a hero, saving both his young daughter and the school from a deadly attack at their prep school, George Woodbury is thought to be something of a golden boy- a stand-up man with a loving wife and kids, living a feasibly perfect life in a very wealthy community. Flash forward to the present-day, where Sadie is now sixteen and police officers are coming to arrest George on accusations of sexual misconduct and the attempted rape of young female students. George’s wife Joan, Sadie and her brother Andrew, are- for lack of a better word- completely shocked. For the three of them at this moment in time, this is the unthinkable, a farcical thought that their husband and father, respectively, could even be accused- even thought to be accused- of such heinous crimes.
While, in the long-run, the story culminates to the determination of George Woodbury’s guilt or innocence, this novel is not an exploration of George’s motives nor is it necessarily about his case. It is more about the family members left to deal with the hideous fallout in their community, the agonizing rage of doubt, and the ceaseless blistering questions of “how could I/we not know” or “what did I/we miss?”. Whittall writes the novel in third-person, turning and propelling the story from Joan’s, Sadie’s and Andrew’s perspectives. Interestingly, George himself- as a voice- is rather irrelevant, aside from his refrains that he was framed and set-up by the female accusers. There are moments when I wished for a slightly more emotional reading from the family members…I found that, at times, the third-person and Whittall’s brisk tone made the narrative (and thus me as the reader) feel a little distant to the subject matter(s) as hand. Nevertheless, Whittall’s writing throughout the course of the novel is sharp– so fluid, so compulsively readable and provoking. The author’s characterizations and survey on the psychologies of Andrew and Sadie and especially Joan are gripping, to say the least. While I cannot give the ending away here, I will say that Whittall collapses yet another shell of the Woodbury family and her main characters with how she leaves The Best Kind of People.
Overall, The Best Kind of People is a read I highly recommend; another standout read of the year that places Whittall on my must-read authors list. Impeccably written, incisive and provocative; a novel that makes the unimaginable become imaginable and forefront, Whittall has written a story that is uneasy, complicated, timely, and memorable. For any readers who like to really dig their teeth and push their mind into a book, The Best Kind of People is a potent one that offers an intense scope of difficult matter up for dialogue.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Groundwood Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.