It feels strange to say that Susan Choi — finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, lauded novelist for decades — is at last having her moment. But then, she’s never produced a book like Trust Exercise before: a gonzo literary performance one could mistake for a magic trick, duping its readers with glee before leaving them impossibly moved.
Choi (American Woman) slices Trust into three parts, the first of which is magnificent on its own: an evocative portrait of an elite performing-arts high school in the ’80s, depicted from young Sarah’s perspective. She falls into a red-hot romance with David, her brooding, talented classmate; she starts confiding in Mr. Kingsley, her imposing but revered gay teacher. Things unravel: Sarah’s love story ends, her closest friendship dies, she’s cast aside by Kingsley for other vulnerable, impressionable students.
Amid all this, Choi (who attended a similar high school) captures the competition between peers, the intense intimacy developed over long-hour days, the electricity of performances as they come alive for the first time. Intriguing characters are kept on the story’s margins, yet in so vibrantly surveying this landscape, Choi gives each room to breathe — especially in the novel’s titular class exercises, realized with such dramatic muscle by the author that they’d do the ever-critical Kingsley proud.
At Trust’s midpoint, the plot flashes forward, forcing us to think backward; a minor player emerges as our narrator, who calls into question much of the story as it’d previously been told. The novel develops into a memory play, probing the power of fiction and art to shape the way we confront our dark pasts, and the armor teens develop as adults fail them and trauma rears its head. Choi writes: “You’re choosing for another when you make choices. We overlap. We get tangled. You can’t help but hurt.” The book’s coda then subtly clarifies this study of abuse, youth, and storytelling. Facts are debated in Trust Exercise, yes, but Choi always tells the truth. A-