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Prep school's harsh lessons

Testimony; A Novel; Anita Shreve; Little, Brown: 320 pp., $25.99

October 03, 2008|Erika Schickel | Special to The Times

ANITA SHREVE opens her new novel, "Testimony," with Mike Bordman, the headmaster of Avery Academy, a New England prep school, holding a videotape. "It was a small cassette," she writes, "not much bigger than the palm of his hand, and when Mike thought about the terrible license and risk exhibited on the tape, as well as its resultant destructive power, it was as though the two-by-three plastic package had been radioactive."

The video depicts a dorm-room bacchanal, a freshman girl sexually servicing three boys, the floor littered with empty beer cans and liquor bottles.

All three of the boys are star basketball players: Rob Leicht, a decent, if somewhat confused kid; "J Dot," a 19-year-old postgraduate student, whose age turns the scandal into a case of statutory rape; and Silas Quinney, the true innocent and fallen angel of the story.

The "victim" is Sienna, a girl unlike other 14-year-olds. As one of Shreve's characters disdainfully reports: "The word vixen came to mind."

Shreve frames her novel as a postmortem study on the incident, in which each of the characters "testifies" to a researcher. It's a device that doesn't always work, although it gives the story a "Rashomon"-type feel. As the chapters jump between voices and back and forth in time, the full scope of events comes out through the varying points of view.

Contrasting adults and teens, teachers and parents, faculty and the blue-collar locals who work at Avery, Shreve nicely captures the insular, often claustrophobic dynamic of boarding school life. The reputation of Avery is shattered when the media pick up on the scandal and it becomes tabloid fodder.

"By late morning," Shreve writes, "the big guns were there -- CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, The New York Times, The Washington Post, People Magazine -- you name it. Everyone wanted a piece of this."

At the center of the action is Silas, into whose front yard Mike crashes his car one icy winter night. Silas gains admission to Avery. Mike, unhappily married, falls for Anna Quinney, Silas' mom. Their affair ends up being the true catalyst for tragedy.

Shreve draws detailed portraits of her male characters, but oddly, gives short shrift to the women in the book. We have suffering mothers, guilt-ridden and fiercely devoted to their sons, and innocents like Noelle, Silas' girlfriend, who is portrayed as beyond reproach.

In contrast, Sienna, potentially the most interesting character in the novel, is sketched as a duplicitous, unforgivable trollop; manipulating and deceiving everyone around her. She is Shreve's missed opportunity for an exploration of what drives young girls toward promiscuity.

But "Testimony" is not really about sex, or the loss of innocence; it's not even a diatribe against media's voracious appetite for scandal. Shreve's theme seems to be the shifting boundary between adolescence and adulthood. Formerly a high school teacher herself, she is at her best when she gets inside the heads of teenagers.

Here is Noelle, on losing her virginity: "I discover that making love is not one moment or two. It is a hundred moments, a hundred doors that open, doors to rooms you have never been inside before."

Rooms and doors and gates as metaphors for adult sexuality are recurring themes in "Testimony." Silas is haunted by his decision to enter the orgy room, whereas Rob regrets not leaving it. "I have asked myself," he says, "a hundred thousand times why I didn't leave the room. But I already know the answer. Nothing -- nothing -- could have induced me to leave that room right then."

The book is less successful when it focuses on Mike, the adult theoretically in charge, who is actually in regressive free-fall. Consumed with Anna, he finds "his thoughts were adolescent. He was married. She was married. She had a son. But it amazed Mike how little weight those perfectly sound reasons had when stacked up against the paradoxical promises of warmth and excitement, of comfort and risk."

Later, he strikes a more superior tone: "He thought he probably knew adolescents as well as any woman or man who worked in a school setting did; that is to say, he knew them not from the point of view of a parent who loved them unconditionally but from the point of view of a somewhat judgmental, if hopeful, outsider. Thus, he was prone to notice the darker side of adolescents: the insane risks they took."

Still, by the end of the story, having pursued his own adolescent urges to tragic ends, Mike finds himself standing outside the closed gates of the school. "He turned slightly," Shreve observes, "so that he could take in, at a glance, the entirety of the gates of Avery -- dark and shuttered and waiting for youth."

The one-way nature of our mistakes makes for an interesting, if somewhat uncompelling, hypothesis. But in the end, Shreve never gives her own characters the necessary depth or breadth, leaving us to feel like judgmental, if hopeful, outsiders ourselves.


Erika Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

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