Friday, September 9, 2016
The Headmaster's Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene
So, this book, The Headmaster's Wife. I'd never heard of it, and I bought it for my Kindle based on a jacket blurb that compared it to Lolita, but with some sort of twist. Now, you might say that buying a book you've never heard of because it's compared to one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century is some pretty hopeful thinking. You'd be right. But I can't say that it wasn't accurate to some extent.
The book opens with the protagonist, Arthur Winthrop, disrobing in the park, and the book is framed by his interrogation by the police. No time is wasted getting to the meat of the story though--Arthur flashes back to his time as headmaster of a prestigious school and his torrid affair with his student, Betsy.
The first part of the novel really does feel like an extended riff on Lolita, as Arthur moves from distant longing, to bribery, to eventual blackmail and sexual extortion. Arthur narrates this section, and it's genuinely uncomfortable to see his manipulation and naked need for this seventeen year old girl, and the way he goes about getting what he wants. His pursuit culminates in blackmailing Betsy to go with him for a weekend in Chicago, telling her that he'll stop her boyfriend's explusion--one caused by liquor Arthur himself planted--and then, after their torrid getaway, reneging and expelling Arthur anyway. In the background of all this skullduggary is Arthur's wife, Elizabeth, who puts the pieces together as their marriage dissolves.
I can't really discuss the second half of the book without substantial spoilers, so be warned: MAJOR SPOILERS.
The first half ends with Arthur confronting Betsy, suffocating her to death, and throwing her body in the river. So it would seem there's nowhere else for the story to go--but clever readers might have noticed the linguistic connection between the names Betsy and Elizabeth, and the fact that the titular wife has hardly appeared, and so we start the second half with a major, potentially novel-ruining twist: that the entire first half of the novel has been Arthur's way of dealing with his wife leaving him. Betsy is Elizabeth is Betsy.
The second half of the novel follows Elizabeth from the time she meets Arthur until she finally decides to end their slowly rotting relationship. The parallels in the second half are interestingly ambiguous and it's not entirely clear why Arthur cast his wife as a seducer-cum-victim. Characters recur in different roles and contexts, and there's a somewhat interesting story to be put together, dealing with themes of love and, especially, loss.
Unfortunately, the second half has to deal with two significant issues, which it navigates with mixed success. The first is that I couldn't help but feel a little cheated after the effectively disturbing first half of the book. Finding out it was all, basically, a dream, was disappointing and started the second half out on a bad foot. But more importantly, Elizabeth is never as compelling a character as Arthur or even the enigmatic Betsy. Her story is naturally less propulsive, since wer can be fairly certain we know how it ends--most men don't cope with a marriage that's getting better by fantasizing about killing their wife.
Still, I'm hesitant to ding The Headmaster's Wife too badly. The writing is often very beautiful and the first half of the book flies by. It reads like an airport novel in the best way, and Thomas' unique methods of writing about such well-trodden themes is admirable. It never quite comes together, but I think I could still recommend it with those caveats.