Trust Exercise

Trust Exercise

Pulitzer Finalist Susan Choi's narrative-upending novel about what happens when a first love between high school students is interrupted by the attentions of a charismatic teacherIn an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare,...

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Title:Trust Exercise
Author:Susan Choi
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Trust Exercise Reviews

  • Jessica Woodbury

    This is a book that has some structural tricks up its sleeve, similar to books like FATES & FURIES and ASYMMETRY. So you need to proceed with caution when reading anything about it. Just saying it plays with structure feels like a bit of a spoiler, but in this case (like both the books I mentioned before) I think it's good to know because some may find the first section of the book grating enough to quit, not knowing what they are losing by bailing early. Like the other two books, I'd recomm

    This is a book that has some structural tricks up its sleeve, similar to books like FATES & FURIES and ASYMMETRY. So you need to proceed with caution when reading anything about it. Just saying it plays with structure feels like a bit of a spoiler, but in this case (like both the books I mentioned before) I think it's good to know because some may find the first section of the book grating enough to quit, not knowing what they are losing by bailing early. Like the other two books, I'd recommend you get at least halfway through before you decide to jump ship.

    Now that I've said all that I have the tricky job of trying to tell you all the ways this book thrilled me without being able to actually tell you about the book. TRUST EXERCISE feels like it's in conversation with Choi's last novel, MY EDUCATION. It feels like there are ideas around the power dynamics between men and women, between teachers and students, that she is not done working out. It feels like the right time to do that, the book is timely in a way that makes me worry about seeing too many reviews with hashtag-metoo attached to it, but it really does feel like it's of this particular moment. It is about the narratives women give themselves about the relationships and encounters with men that can leave them with scars of all sizes. It's about the intensity of being a teenager, the depth of feeling and experience that happens without a full understanding of what it means and who you are.

    There is some particular joy in this book for theater kids, who will recognize the tight-knit community theater kids form that includes its own dramas and jealousies. It is also a book about the way writers process and change the world and does so in a way that feels fresh and not just another writer-writing-about-writers retread.

    I noted in my review of MY EDUCATION how very sharp and amazing Choi's prose and observations are, and I noticed it once again here. Sometimes she has a sentence that makes you gasp from the truth and perfection of it. The style of the prose, overall, can be a bit confounding. It's purposeful, this is a book that makes the reader work, a book that is always aware of just how much it knows that you don't. It can take a little time to get your head straight sometimes, and an entire section switches pronouns just to remind you of its little trick in a way that some may find infuriating but that I adored. (I have a feeling there is a decent number of people who will find the entire book infuriating but I will continue to passionately love and defend it. I love this exact kind of difficult book.)

    I am seriously considering re-reading this entire book. (After finishing I immediately reread the final section, which was 100% the right decision.) Even better, I am considering re-reading MY EDUCATION and then re-reading this book. I have a tendency to race when I enjoy a book, I can't let myself slow down and feel it and this time I would like to savor every bite.

    Update: I reread MY EDUCATION and then reread TRUST EXERCISE and it was fantastic, highly recommended. TRUST EXERCISE is a book that can leave you feeling like the floor has been pulled out from under you and not all readers like that. This kind of structure can also mean the book doesn't hold up upon subsequent readings. But this one absolutely does. In fact, I had even more joy the second time through knowing what the pieces were and seeing how Choi brings them together. And seeing the ways in which she leaves questions still open. I am fascinated by the ways in which we process the same experiences differently and this book dives into that so hard, I just loved it. I loved how the narrative "tricks" of the book aren't just there to trick you, they're there to tell you something specific about who these people are and why they are telling this specific story. I particularly love the shifting voice and acerbic tone of the second section, it was so incredibly gratifying.

  • Meike

    This experimental novel discusses consent by shifting timelines and perspectives, thus forcing the reader to question and re-adjust which characters to trust - and it's no spoiler to state that in the end, no one will turn out to be who you thought they'd be. Choi starts with a high school drama that then turns into a meta-fictional revenge tale only to end in an even more disturbing coda, and I just love how she defies expectations and disrupts narrative conventions: There's a certain brutality

    This experimental novel discusses consent by shifting timelines and perspectives, thus forcing the reader to question and re-adjust which characters to trust - and it's no spoiler to state that in the end, no one will turn out to be who you thought they'd be. Choi starts with a high school drama that then turns into a meta-fictional revenge tale only to end in an even more disturbing coda, and I just love how she defies expectations and disrupts narrative conventions: There's a certain brutality in the ever-shifting reading experience, and the novel also requires some detective work in oder to find out what is actually going on, so there's all the stuff I enjoy in experimental fiction!

    In the first part of the book (there are no chapters or other indicators, you have to unlock the story) which takes place in the early 80s, we meet Sarah and David who are students at a renowned arts high school in an unnamed big city in the southern part of the United States. In an environment full of aspiring artists who dream of taking the big stage, dynamics of power and dependency unfold. The enigmatic theater teacher uses his position to manipulate students, and he submits them under so-called "trust exercises" where they have to look at each other, repeat each other's sentences or openly reveal all kinds of hidden thoughts. When David and Sarah fall in love, their relationship quickly turns sour and Sarah ends up having an affair with a much older theater teacher who visits the school with his own students from England.

    I will certainly NOT tell you what happens next, because it would ruin the reading experience for you, but let me say that after reading the whole novel, you will give a very different account regarding what happens in the book than I just did. Choi negotiates power in sexual relationships, responsibility, victimhood, and awareness, and she does it in a very clever, challenging way. Other reviewers compared this book to

    , and there is some truth to that, but Choi uses her narrative shifts to constantly re-write part one, thus illustrating the effects of framing, scope, perspective and also empathy. Here, the asymmetry is brought about by the point of view and, above all, the judgement passed by different characters.

    I applaud Susan Choi for this daring feat of a book, it's engaging, surprising and intelligent. I hope she'll get nominated for some awards, because this novel deserves attention.

  • Adam Dalva

    Incredibly ambitious structurally, with a shape that is more organically interesting than ASYMMETRY (which it is quite similar to). Reminds me a bit of SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS, but loses its connection to the fun teen drama that propels the first 100 pages of the novel. A very, very fun book to talk about, and think about. I'm just not sure: the ambiguity about what is true at the end of the novel is a slight misstep - I would have liked this a touch better if, toward the end, there h

    Incredibly ambitious structurally, with a shape that is more organically interesting than ASYMMETRY (which it is quite similar to). Reminds me a bit of SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS, but loses its connection to the fun teen drama that propels the first 100 pages of the novel. A very, very fun book to talk about, and think about. I'm just not sure: the ambiguity about what is true at the end of the novel is a slight misstep - I would have liked this a touch better if, toward the end, there had been more answers. I love withholding novels, but I'm not quite sure if the math of this structure quite adds up.

  • Ron Charles

    One lurks in every high school: a charismatic teacher who cultivates a clique of acolytes. Miss Jean Brodie aside, this teacher is typically a man in his prime, parceling out the precious gift of his intimacy to a select group. No matter how many years have passed, you can probably still recall his name at your own school: the droll iconoclast who always seemed at odds with the administration, the cool teacher who made thrillingly inappropriate asides. Amid rumors of some past glory, he radiated

    One lurks in every high school: a charismatic teacher who cultivates a clique of acolytes. Miss Jean Brodie aside, this teacher is typically a man in his prime, parceling out the precious gift of his intimacy to a select group. No matter how many years have passed, you can probably still recall his name at your own school: the droll iconoclast who always seemed at odds with the administration, the cool teacher who made thrillingly inappropriate asides. Amid rumors of some past glory, he radiated an air of long-suffering superiority, as though his willingness to teach mere high school students were another example of his largesse.

    In fact, as you realize later, he could thrive nowhere else but in that moist terrarium of adolescent desire. He was a vampire thirsty for the fervor of teenage boys and girls.

    That immortal figure rises up at the center of Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise,” the latest of her startling novels about academic life. Mr. Kingsley is a theater teacher at Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented” students and prepare them for “their exceptional lives.” Mr. Kingsley is exotic by the standards of this unnamed Southern town in the early 1980s. He once lived in New York! He refers to Broadway star Joel Grey as Joel! He owns a “bizarre human-size doll that was supposed to be called a ‘soft sculpture.’” To the theater students desperate for his attention, “Mr. Kingsley was impossibly witty and sometimes impossibly cutting; the prospect of talking with him was terrifying and galvanizing; one longed to live up to his brilliance and equally feared that it couldn’t be done.”

    This is the most precise skewering of a magnetic teacher since Muriel Spark’s 1961 classic. Choi’s voice blends an adolescent’s awe with an adult’s irony. It’s a letter-perfect satire of the special strain of egotism and obsession that can fester in academic settings. Choi is particularly attentive to Mr. Kingsley’s inane maxims, which his adoring students polish into sacred . . . .

  • Tammy

    To one degree or another we are manipulated by writers. I don’t think it matters if we read fiction or nonfiction we are influenced just the same. Skillful writers tinker with our beliefs, emotions, philosophies, knowledge (or lack thereof) and so much more. On some level, regardless if we agree or disagree or if we like or dislike what is presented, an element of trust comes into play. Beyond the trust exercises that the characters engage in during theater classes, this novel is an exercise in

    To one degree or another we are manipulated by writers. I don’t think it matters if we read fiction or nonfiction we are influenced just the same. Skillful writers tinker with our beliefs, emotions, philosophies, knowledge (or lack thereof) and so much more. On some level, regardless if we agree or disagree or if we like or dislike what is presented, an element of trust comes into play. Beyond the trust exercises that the characters engage in during theater classes, this novel is an exercise in trusting the author. Told in three parts, each part turns the preceding part on its ear. This comes off as a contrivance rather than as a subtle manipulation. While this is skillfully written and structurally enterprising, on the whole it was much too obvious for my taste.

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)

    This is a hard novel to discuss without ruining the experience so I will just say it starts out with high school students in an arts magnet school with a lot of theater focus. I read it because it was on the Tournament of Books Camp Tob list.

    More detailed thoughts that I'll hide behind a spoiler. I really recommend reading this without reading

    it.

    This is a hard novel to discuss without ruining the experience so I will just say it starts out with high school students in an arts magnet school with a lot of theater focus. I read it because it was on the Tournament of Books Camp Tob list.

    More detailed thoughts that I'll hide behind a spoiler. I really recommend reading this without reading

    it.

  • Michelle

    Thank you to Henry Holt & Company and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

    Boy, oh boy - where to start? Unfortunately, I have no real positive things to say about this book. I have had it for weeks. Within the first 10 pages I knew this was going to be something I would struggle with. The best way I can describe it is trying to read a book while it's under water. It's never quite fully in focus and I felt like I was only picking up every other wor

    Thank you to Henry Holt & Company and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

    Boy, oh boy - where to start? Unfortunately, I have no real positive things to say about this book. I have had it for weeks. Within the first 10 pages I knew this was going to be something I would struggle with. The best way I can describe it is trying to read a book while it's under water. It's never quite fully in focus and I felt like I was only picking up every other word or so. To explain it another way - there is way too much superfluous language and also it doesn't read how I would normally talk. I felt like I was reading a translation of another language. Susan Choi obviously has a talent for the written word, but I wouldn't say she writes for the reader, she writes for herself and the literary critics. (I could be way off base here, and I don't mean this in a mean way, but when 2 or 3 words work, why do you need to use 10? To show off?)

    I thought this book would be kind of like Fame - young kids (Sarah and David) who fall in love in the 1980s at a prestigious art school. Not even close. I feel terrible saying this, but don't waste your time. There are too many amazing books out there.

  • Julie Ehlers

    is a novel about a performing-arts high school in a sprawling southern city that for some reason is never named (it's Houston). The first half of it is told from the point of view of Sarah, one of the students, who goes through the usual issues with friends and boyfriends and parents, although everything is ratcheted up to 11 here, I guess to emphasize that performing-arts schools can be a tad... dramatic? Self-important? Certainly the writing in the first half of the book would s

    is a novel about a performing-arts high school in a sprawling southern city that for some reason is never named (it's Houston). The first half of it is told from the point of view of Sarah, one of the students, who goes through the usual issues with friends and boyfriends and parents, although everything is ratcheted up to 11 here, I guess to emphasize that performing-arts schools can be a tad... dramatic? Self-important? Certainly the writing in the first half of the book would support this idea: Sure, everything feels like a big deal in high school, but does it really feel like THIS BIG of a deal? Everything is overwrought. Everything is overwritten. Everything is like a tiny terrarium into which way too many lizards have been crammed. The sides of the terrarium are steaming up! Everyone is flushing pink and sweating (literally; I got a little tired of learning how everyone smelled)! Who keeps reaching into the terrarium and poking the lizards? Why, the illustrious drama teacher Mr. Kingsley, a man with such an inflated sense of the significance of himself and his theatre (never

    , god forbid) department that he was only bearable if, every time he appeared, I imagined Jon Lovitz's voice in my head, intoning:

    HELLO!

    LLEWELLYN SINCLAIR!

    Here’s Mr. Kingsley’s oversize ego on display:

    Here’s Mr. Kingsley getting inappropriately involved in his students’ personal lives:

    Honestly, everything about this section annoyed me, from the creepy adults to the creepy students to the eyerolling intensity (HELLO! I AM LLEWELLYN SINCLAIR!) of everything they did. Houston was portrayed as a bunch of parking lots connected by multilane boulevards and highways, which was probably accurate but horrible to have to spend time in. Everything was yucky and gross and impossible to care about. I wanted to give up so much but kept going because (1) I have liked Susan Choi’s work in the past, so I was giving her the benefit of the doubt; and (2) I’d heard there was some kind of “twist” halfway through, and I was curious about what it was. I thought there was a chance the book could still be redeemed.

    Then the “twist” happened. Without really giving anything away, the twist is that the second half of the book is told from the point of view of a character who is peripheral to the first half of the novel. Peripheral Character is here to let you know that not everything Sarah told you is true. Peripheral Character is also extremely boring and prone to parsing words, listing their synonyms and how they can circle back around to words that don’t mean quite the same thing as the words they are supposed to be synonymous with. The point of this seems to be that NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS.

    makes much of all this, intoning that the first half “of the story serves one of its characters [i.e., Sarah] more than the others.” But isn’t this how it always is in fiction? The author chooses which characters to use to tell the story. The other characters are there but don’t really get a say in what’s going on. This is literally what happens in

    . Why is it unique here? Is it because Choi switches to the point of view of a character who was peripheral in the first half? For me, it just heightened the level of “Who cares?” about the whole thing. Who cares about Peripheral Character? Who cares if Peripheral Character says not everything happened the way Sarah told it? Who cares what Peripheral Character’s experiences were? Peripheral Character sometimes switches back and forth between first and third person to remind us that she, too, is adding her own gloss on things, but… who cares?

    “Isn’t it all fiction anyway?” I kept asking myself. This is the first time I can remember ever asking that about a novel I was reading. Usually these issues of character reliability, of point of view, of plot, matter to me. I would ordinarily never say “Who cares? Isn’t it all fiction anyway?” The fact that I did it multiple times with

    can mean only one thing: This novel didn’t work for me

    . And those endings! An initial "ending" that was simultaneously preposterous and utterly predictable, followed by another “twist,” with an even higher “Who cares?” factor than the previous one, that didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already figured out long ago.

    made me think a lot about experimental fiction. If you asked me, I would say that I love experimental fiction! I love having the rug pulled out from under me, I love having to think about who to believe, I love having to turn the whole thing over in my head and figure out how it works. But

    really brought home the idea that if your novel doesn’t have a solid foundation—credible characters, good writing, a plot that really works—an “experiment” turns into nothing more than a cheap trick. And that’s what we have here.

    As I mentioned, I’ve liked Susan Choi’s writing in the past. I also once met her at a reading and she seemed like a great person. For these reasons, I almost gave this book 2 stars. But the fact is, for any other writer, this would have been an obvious 1-star. The fact that I know Susan Choi knows what she’s doing actually makes things worse, not better. She obviously thought what she was giving us in

    was good enough. For me, it was not good enough. This book was the worst kind of trust exercise: I had faith that Susan Choi would catch me, and instead she just let me hit the floor. The headache I got is nothing compared to the disappointment I feel.

  • Caroline

    ***NO SPOILERS***

    (Full disclosure: Book abandoned on page 61 [out of 257 pages].)

    It's so important to care about characters,

    care, to be invested in what happens in a story. I couldn't care less about those in Susan Choi's

    . In part one, the story is about high school freshmen David and Sarah studying drama in the early 1980s as they develop a romantic relationship. I couldn’t get a solid grasp of just who these young teens are; they’re just names on a page, not characters b

    ***NO SPOILERS***

    (Full disclosure: Book abandoned on page 61 [out of 257 pages].)

    It's so important to care about characters,

    care, to be invested in what happens in a story. I couldn't care less about those in Susan Choi's

    . In part one, the story is about high school freshmen David and Sarah studying drama in the early 1980s as they develop a romantic relationship. I couldn’t get a solid grasp of just who these young teens are; they’re just names on a page, not characters brought to life. I attribute this to Choi's love of narrative summary. There's little action and dialogue in

    that would have allowed me to draw my own conclusions about David and Sarah and the peripheral characters. Instead, in large blocks of text, Choi told me all about them: their history, their thoughts and feelings, what they think of various other characters--everything. It's dispassionate storytelling. In no time I was bored.

    As for David and Sarah's relationship, it begins with a groping where the consent is questionable but that Choi presented as acceptable. From there, the relationship is defined mostly by overly detailed sex, which left a sour taste in my mouth. Yes, many teens have sex, but there's something repellent about reading every detail of their encounters. A fade-to-black would have worked just fine.

    As someone who loves stories set in academia, I looked very forward to reading

    , but it's firmly set in the world of drama students. I haven't studied drama extensively, which would be a non-factor if Choi hadn't described the classes in a way that only drama students could appreciate. For pages, she described each aspect of a trust exercise between David and Sarah, from the small to the big as if making very clear that she has a background in drama. (I can only assume.) There’s supposed to be tension in this scene, but owing to superficial characterization and Choi's failure to establish high stakes, it's instead tedious. David and Sarah aren't compelling.

    The literati will probably adore

    . Choi was a Pulitzer-prize nominee for a previous work, and

    is written in that introspective, artistic (and sometimes hilariously overwrought) style that makes snobby intellectuals feel smart for appreciating. As a literature-lover who wants and expects the full package in a story--skilled writing, organized plotting, and full-bodied characters--I contend that

    is simply bad. The literati can have it; all other readers should look elsewhere.

    NOTE: I received this as an Advanced Reader Copy from LibraryThing in January 2019.

  • Larry H

    Wow, this one didn't work for me at all. Given how much I read I guess it's surprising that it doesn't happen more often.

    Susan Choi's newest book,

    , is a marvel of language and imagery, but on the whole, I found it confusing, a bit meandering, and once Choi flipped the script on the plot, I wondered whether what I was reading was actually happening or if it was a figment of the characters' imagination.

    The book took place in the early 1980s at the Citywide Academy for the Performi

    Wow, this one didn't work for me at all. Given how much I read I guess it's surprising that it doesn't happen more often.

    Susan Choi's newest book,

    , is a marvel of language and imagery, but on the whole, I found it confusing, a bit meandering, and once Choi flipped the script on the plot, I wondered whether what I was reading was actually happening or if it was a figment of the characters' imagination.

    The book took place in the early 1980s at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts. The first-year students are ready to being learning Stagecraft, Shakespeare, the Sight-Reading of Music, and, of course, acting, where their charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley, puts them through a variety of trust exercises, challenging their sensory perceptions and awakening their emotions.

    Two students, Sarah and David, fall for each other, and begin a passionate yet mercurial relationship in full view of their fellow students. But neither of them are ready for the ramifications of a relationship, and they're not prepared for the manipulations of their peers—or Mr. Kingsley, for that matter. In an effort to drown out the pressures of everyday life, Sarah makes a decision which has major ramifications, ramifications that ripple long into the future.

    And then Choi speeds up the timeline and sets the book in the future, and the whole narrative goes hazy, so you're not sure if what you read actually happened, or if Choi simply wants you to question the storyline. But that's not her only gimmick, as she throws yet another twist into the plot that once again left me shaking my head.

    Susan Choi has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and certainly there's no doubt about her writing ability. But unfortunately,

    never worked for me. I have seen some really positive reviews, however, so it may work for someone else.

    NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company provided me a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

    See all of my reviews at

    , or check out my list of the best books I read in 2017 at

    .

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