The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene is a literary novel of suspense, exploring the tragedy and mysteries of a man, the headmaster of a New England prep school, whose life is spinning out of control (available Februray 25, 2014).
Arthur Winthrop is naked in the middle of Central Park when he is taken into custody. When the police question him, they discover Arthur is the headmaster of the elite Lancaster School, a private school in Vermont, and the story behind his sudden nude appearance is far more complex than the cops could possibly anticipate.
Arthur begins by describing his relationship with Betsy Pappas, one of his students. In his timeline of events, he seduces her first during a trip in Boston, then repeatedly. He claims she loves him in return, despite the fact that she is underage, has rejected him, and has begun a relationship with another student. Arthur knows something awful has happened to Betsy… and now he wants to confess.
But the key to what happened to the young student may just lie with Arthur’s wife.
The Headmaster's Wife is a gorgeous, disturbing exploration of what’s true in relationships and what is false.
Behind the walls of the Lancaster School, there is sex, violence, and loss. Greene chooses to show his characters’ secrets and lies bit by bit, never revealing the whole picture until the very end. The novel is told in a triptych—first from Arthur’s point of view, then from his wife’s, and finally from the man Arthur has continually wronged.
The novel begins in a classroom of the Lancaster School. Arthur is teaching a literature class focusing on the Russians: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekov. It is here the reader is introduced to Betsy Pappas for the first time, via Arthur’s almost Lolita-esque observations:
She looks up. She is pretty but in a sad-eyed Slavic kind of way. Her face slightly off-center, green eyes with small bags under them that will only grow with age, her skin clear and pink. I get lost looking at her. I forget for a moment the rest of the class, and when she turns her gaze away from the blackboard behind me to my face, I become aware of all the eyes on me. Time to speak. I look over their heads and find my voice.
From that first moment, the obsession is complete. The not-so-noble headmaster follows Betsy around the campus, even going so far as to play peeping Tom through her dorm windows. He favors her in class. He creates office hours because he knows she’s the type to make ‘use’ of them. Then Arthur brings Betsy to the city to show the board one of Lancaster’s most promising students. It is there, in Boston, that his obsession is consummated:
I am prepared to blame it on drunkenness. Another small blight of erratic behavior in a year of behaving oddly. I am prepared to be slapped. I am prepared to be repelled.
But Betsy Pappas does not recoil from me in the shadows of Newbury Street. She kisses me back. If anything, she is more passionate than I am. My hands are in her hair, at the back of her head. Our lips come together. Our teeth clash for a moment as we search for each other’s open mouths. Her tongue hot against my teeth. Warm breath intermingling. I run my hand along her back, and she moves into me.
And it’s all downhill from there.
Greene manages to keep the affair from appearing grotesque, and a lot of that comes from the earnestness of Arthur’s narrative. It’s obvious he truly believes what he has with Betsy is special and mutual. Even as evidence mounts to the contrary, it’s easy to follow along with his point of view, however disturbing that point of view might be.
Arthur’s is not the only point of view in this novel that’s easy to get behind. When the reader gets into the headmaster’s wife’s head, the writing is just as smooth and it is here the reader really begins to understand there is much more to Arthur’s state of mind than an affair with a young student. From his wife, we learn Arthur has lost his son. Her section begins with a description of Ethan in-country.
Army specialist Ethan Winthrop, Lancaster School class of 2002, steps onto a dusty road and sees stars. His only crime is that he doesn’t mind being the first one out when the Hummer grinds to a halt, for while, outside, the midday sun is unrelenting, inside the crowded vehicle it is even hotter. Ethan opens the back door and climbs down. His rifle is slung over his right shoulder. Everything is quiet. Everything is still. It is whisper quiet. Ethan looks around. His eyes scan the cluster of small buildings and then beyond them to the open desert. Not a living thing moves, and this pleases him. Movement is what they train for. In truth, he loves this moment, being out front, sensing the men behind him without seeing them. All of it is right here for him, what he has been built for, he thinks.
With the switch in point of view, the narration expands out from Lancaster School’s campus and Arthur’s story seems suddenly very narrow and naïve. It’s easy to keep turning pages to discover the truth of what really happened between Betsy, Ethan, Arthur, and Arthur’s wife, Elizabeth.
The Headmaster’s Wife is an artfully told and moving story. The study of motives is fascinating. While there are a few twists and turns, and while there are some uncomfortable sequences, at its heart, it's a truly lovely exploration of the effects of grief and emotional isolation.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.