Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'Testimony: A Novel'

The Book: Testimony: A Novel

The Author: Anita Shreve

How I Found It: The concepts of some of Shreve's other books have really intrigued me and I have a few more, but this is the first one I've actually read.

The Review: "A single action can cause a life to veer off into a direction it was never meant to go."

This statement, thought by one of the characters towards the end of Testimony, encapsulates the idea at the heart of the novel-- the effect of a single reckless action on a group of people. The first paragraph of the novel alludes to this action tarnishing the academic reputation of a private school, destroying two marriages, ruining the futures of three students involved, and finally resulting in a death.

The action is question is a sex tape involving three basketball players at the school and a freshman girl. Since the boys are all eighteen or older, the sexual acts are considered assault. The novel follows the slow unfolding of what led to the creation of the tape, and the events before or after the headmaster views it and the news begins to spread.

Because of this, Testimony is not quite plot-driven. It is more of a character study than a story with a plot, exploring the effect of the tape on the people involved and the bystanders. I think I remember reading that there's something like twenty different perspectives involved, as the story switches narrators every few pages, and I won't disagree. Since I like working with switching narrators myself, I liked the technique, though I didn't like the use of the second-person in some of the chapters.

I liked the technique more once I read that Shreve was inspired to use it after seeing The Laramie Project, one of my all-time favorite plays (read it for English last year and acted in it earlier this year). That play is a beautiful, entirely true, and heartbreaking examination of a town's grief after the brutal death of Matthew Shepard in 1999, and it is easy to see where Shreve got the idea for this book from that play. Shreve also examines the town of Avery after the scandal-- how reporters invade, how people profit, how marriages fall apart, how townspeople move away.

It also brings up the questions of teen drinking and the double standard against the privileged. Mike, the headmaster, thinks early in the book of how the sex tape would never have made the news if it was found at a public school rather than a private one, and this is probably true. The same with the drinking-- as a public high school graduate, I can confirm that there is most definitely drinking going on, and it is not treated nearly as seriously by parents and administration as it should be.

Though I really enjoyed how Shreve told the story, I have to admit that it wasn't all that original. I guessed early on who the death would be, and I was right. The revelation of the person who taped the incident wasn't all that revealing, either-- the discussion questions treat this as a big twist, when really the character is such a minor figure that I found myself asking, "... who?"

Though it wasn't original, I could forgive the flaws, as it was a compelling story. I'd actually like to see a movie of this one, as the movie for The Laramie Project was beautifully done by HBO and I feel that this one could be done in a similar manner.

One warning-- the opening of the book is fairly graphic in its depiction of what is on the tape. After that, it isn't much, but it should be mentioned. Also, the depictions of the women in the story aren't really the kindest, and it's implied that the girl in the sex tape was not a victim at all but just a girl seeking attention after having neglectful parents.

Overall, recommended highly to people who are interested in reading a story from shifting viewpoints, to parents of teens who want a better look at what their children could be facing, or teens like myself who want a compelling story.

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