Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Published by Henry Holt & Company
Publication date: April 9, 2019
Susan Choi’s new novel, Trust Exercise is a polarizing book, with Goodreads reviews divided between 1 star and 5. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I decided to hope for good, because the story is about teens attending a dramatic arts school, which sounds like The Ensemble, a novel I loved. Did my hopes pan out? Or did I wish I could have back the hours I spent reading the novel? Let’s see…
I’m a book blogger who plays by the rules. I don’t publish reviews of books months before they come out and I don’t put spoilers in my reviews. I’m making an exception for Trust Exercise, because I have so much to say. If you have any desire to read this book STOP reading right now. Come back after you finish and feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.
The premise of Trust Exercise seems straightforward. A group of teens attending a prestigious arts high school in the South in the early 1980s. Two of them, David and Sarah, fall in love and then, very badly, as only 15-year olds can do, fall out of love. Their drama teacher is the charismatic Mr. Kingsley who encourages the personal drama between all of them and especially between David and Sarah. This continues throughout high school until a summer when everything falls apart after an unsupervised party at Kingsley’s home. Fade to black.
Here’s what you need to know so far. This was Part One of Trust Exercise. It lasts for almost 175 pages…as one long chapter with few paragraphs and a multitude of descriptors. A plethora of words, of which only half are needed to get the point across.
Part Two begins with a narrator named “Karen”—and yes, she is designated in quotes because that is not her real name. What follows, after an interminable explanation from Karen about Karen is probably the key reason Trust Exercise is getting 5 stars from some readers, because it is damn clever. Part One is fictitious. Part Two is the present day and Karen is going to debunk every single aspect of the lies and misdirection in Part One. This is a great idea. Very meta. I won’t be a complete bitch and reveal who the author is, but it’s someone we met in Part One.
Here’s what you need to know about Part Two: it’s told in the 3rd person (Karen) but with sudden interjections in the 1st person. Huh? Still no chapters and numerous paragraphs like this one:
Many words are both nouns and verbs. Present/present. Insult/insult. Object/object. Permit/permit. A list of such words, compiled for the business traveler not fluent in English, is pinned to my bulletin board. It’s meant to illustrate not just the words’ versatility but the fact that in each word the emphasis shifts the same way, from first syllable to the second…
A grammar lesson? Really? Why do I care? It’s been made abundantly clear that Karen feels wronged by Part One and Part Two is going to be her retribution, but this word slog crushes any potential fun and enjoyment in the prospect. The only redeeming factor in Part Two is the final sentence. One sentence, after pages and pages of mind-numbing rhetoric. But it’s a beauty. The kind of thing you’d want to toss off at someone who’d wronged you after you’d come back and destroyed them.
But wait, there’s more! Yes, a Part Three, but it is extraneous, except to wrap up an earlier plot point. I’ll leave it at that.
There’s a point when ambition becomes grandiosity and rather than drawing the reader in, it pushes them away. Choi leaves that point in the distance with what feels like her delight in her own intelligence—something I’m willing to concede to her. She may be smarter than me, but this much verbiage becomes a weapon and defeats the purpose of great fiction. The meaning and the reader are bludgeoned to death. There was a kernel of a fascinating plot twist in Trust Exercise, but ultimately, this was an exercise in trust that did not pay off for me.