I decided to read this novel because of its appearance on the shortlist for the Giller Prize. Unfortunately, I was not as enthralled with it as others have been.
At the beginning of the novel, a pillar of the community and highly respected prep-school teacher, George Woodbury, is arrested and charged with four counts of sexual misconduct with minors and attempted rape of a minor. The rest of the novel focuses on the impact of those charges on his family: his wife Joan, a trauma nurse; 17-year-old Sadie, George’s popular, high-achieving daughter; and Andrew, the gay son, a lawyer who lives with his partner in New York.
The reader is taken into the minds of these three family members. George, however, remains a secondary character. Obviously, his thoughts are kept hidden in order to create suspense: is he guilty or innocent? A year in the lives of these three is detailed, ending with the trial (though there is an epilogue as well).
The family’s conflict is clearly stated by Joan: “’You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because somebody accuses them of something despicable’” (87). As expected, they vacillate between believing George to be innocent and thinking he might be guilty. People in their affluent community quickly choose sides. Many view the Woodbury family, especially Joan, as complicit enablers so they quickly become social pariahs: “Joan was no longer a mother and a nurse and a person with her own history. She symbolized evil, and for that, people were not kind” (95). Joan is totally shocked by the charges and realizes that, if George is guilty, then she has been a blind fool. What the reader comes to realize is that they are all collateral damage, either victims of George’s behaviour or victims of lying girls.
What is emphasized throughout is that the Woodbury family is powerless. Joan summarizes their predicament to her sister Clara: “’It’s not as though I have control over the story that gets played out in the media either. . . . I have to just give up and let the sharks eat me – the cops, the lawyers, the media, the opportunistic, exploitative writers . . . I have no control, Clara. And that is the entirety of the life lesson I have learned from this experience. No one has control. At all’” (345).
It is obvious that the author has studied rape culture and real examples of sexual assault cases. Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby came to mind. Whittall also refers to a case which reminded me of the Russell Williams case: “the high commander in the US Army had been tried and convicted for two murders and dozens more sexual assaults, as well as a string of break-ins and robberies of women’s undergarments” (286). One of the victims sued Williams’ wife, arguing that she could not have been oblivious to his predatory behaviour but did not report that conduct to the police. Joan Woodbury could be Mary Harriman.
One thing that bothered me is how little Joan knows about the case. Other than questioning her husband, she does little to get to the truth. She doesn’t seem to speak to George’s lawyer on a regular basis to stay informed about the progress of the defense’s case. George is charged and then nothing is done for eight months?
The book is not an easy read. The onslaught of taunts, and vicious hate mail/voice messages endured by the family had me feeling bombarded. Watching their lives and relationships fray is emotionally exhausting, so the author succeeds in making the reader feel to some extent what Joan, Sadie and Andrew feel. Though the characters had my sympathy, I didn’t feel connected to them somehow. Would first-person narration have helped so there wouldn’t be a distancing between the characters and the reader?