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Trust Exercise

Review

Trust Exercise

In the hands of a lesser author (who likely wouldn’t even attempt such a feat, but that may be beside the point), Susan Choi’s TRUST EXERCISE would come off as a writerly exercise, a puzzle to be presented and then solved. But the novel --- while undoubtedly a stunning exploration of the capacities of narrative form and point of view in fiction --- also manages to be a well-written, propulsive story, one that is timely, provocative and at times painful to read in this era of #metoo.

The book is divided into three sections, all titled “Trust Exercise.” The first part, which takes up roughly the novel’s first half, plays out as a particularly intense teen sexual coming-of-age drama, set against the backdrop of an elite high school for the performing arts in an unspecified Southern city. Sarah and David, both students in the school’s Theatre (don’t spell it theater!) program, have stoked an attraction for each other all during freshman year, but during the waning weeks of the summer before sophomore year, the two finally consummate their relationship.

"TRUST EXERCISE is a novel that can be equally appreciated by book groups, which undoubtedly will respond to its characters and themes, and by students of writing, who will return to it again and again as a stunning example of a writer stretching and perfecting her craft."

But what does it really mean? It's the 1980s, and Sarah --- probably one of the school’s least talented students --- aspires to a punk aesthetic and lives with her single mom in a sprawling apartment complex. David, by contrast, comes from a wealthy family and seems, with his good looks and easy charisma, to be destined for success in theatre and in life. Are they “dating”? Or (to use an anachronism) just hooking up?

When, once school resumes, David makes it clear that he wants their relationship to be public, Sarah quite publicly refuses his advances in return. This sets in motion a very public psychodrama that’s stoked by their drama teacher (who seems to be using the tension between the two for his own amusement and the class’s edification) and comes to a head in the midst of a visit by a group of English theatre students during the spring of that year.

But just when readers think they’ve gotten a handle on the kind of novel Choi is writing --- sort of like Fame, but darker --- she hits the reset button and turns the narrative on its head. The second “Trust Exercise” section is set more than a dozen years later, and when we meet Sarah again, she’s a novelist on tour for the paperback edition of her book. But this time the narrative is not told from her point of view --- it’s from the perspective of a different character, whose viewpoint calls into question much of what readers thought they knew. Without giving away too much, the novel’s brief third section sets readers in motion once again, offering yet another point of view and further problematizing the very notion of “truth” even as it underscores Choi’s topics and themes.

Throughout, the book unpacks the problematic dynamic of older, powerful, charismatic men who use their positions of influence (and the imprimatur of their so-called art) to demean the young people who rely on, trust and even idolize them. It also brilliantly embodies the conundrum of the fiction writer who draws from life and questions whether we can ever really trust what we see, let alone what we remember. TRUST EXERCISE is a novel that can be equally appreciated by book groups, which undoubtedly will respond to its characters and themes, and by students of writing, who will return to it again and again as a stunning example of a writer stretching and perfecting her craft.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 12, 2019

Trust Exercise
by Susan Choi

  • Publication Date: April 9, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1250309883
  • ISBN-13: 9781250309884