October 22, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Anita Shreve
Little, Brown and Company
We gave it an A

After a party at an exclusive New England prep school, three popular basketball players, blasted on beer, end up having sex with a female student — who’s only 14. Oh, and the acts are caught on tape. Though the headmaster is hesitant to publicize the incident — particularly because of his affection for two of the boys involved — the news quickly spreads. Before you can say ”expelled,” the media are pointing fingers and countless lives are changed for the worse.

Anita Shreve?s novel seems gimmicky at first: Its ripped-from-the-headlines premise is meant to remind readers of the Milton Academy scandal. But what appears to be a straightforward fictionalization soon invites readers to ponder tough questions: Who’s really to blame? When are you old enough to know better? And how many lives can be destroyed by one moment?

But Testimony is hardly a novel about the politics of a scandal. Instead, it is deeply personal, taking the reader inside the minds of everyone involved: the kindhearted boy drawn to alcohol after a hormone-induced rage; a headmaster who’s torn, professionally and personally; the mother who must cope with the fact that she has raised a pathological liar; a girl who might be a little too wise for her years. It’s an ambitious narrative technique, but Shreve nails it and makes you understand and even sympathize with everyone involved. Just read one chapter about Silas — the kid who lands a scholarship, falls in love, and watches it all tumble apart during the course of a single day — and try not to shed a tear.

Make no mistake, however: There’s no protagonist in the novel, just as there is no antagonist. Shreve’s too accomplished a writer to portray life that simply. We live in a world filled with gray areas, where there isn’t an answer to every question and there isn’t always a reason behind action. As one of the accused boys says while trying to explain why he participated in the life-altering sex act, ”It was an act without a why.” And that’s about as raw as a piece of fiction can get. A

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