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TestimonyReview - Testimony
A Novel
by Anita Shreve
Hachette Audio, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Dec 23rd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 52)

Vermont, 2006.  A private high school.  A video of a 14-year-old girl having sex with 3 senior boys from the basketball team.  Scandal.  Tragedy.  Heartbreak.  Lawsuits.  Revelations.  Resignations.  Divorces. 

The chapters of Testimony are narrated by a host of characters: the boys, the girl, a girlfriend, the headmaster, a reporter, parents, wives.  It's a strong group performance in the unabridged audiobook, making for a transfixing listening experience.  Shreve's story is well-crafted, with most characters well-defined, reflecting on what happened.  Although we know from that start that no good will come of the events, there is suspense in learning how it all happened, and who died.  It is provocative and even moving. 

Nevertheless, Testimony's underlying assumption will trouble many readers.  The boys get into trouble for having sex with an underage girl, the headmaster gets into trouble for trying to keep the incident quiet, and the school's reputation suffers.  All this is supposedly in the aim of protecting the innocent girl of whom the boys took advantage.  Yet she was the one who seduced the boys, she is unharmed by the whole incident, and she shows the least concern for what happened.  She is also by far the most unsympathetic character in the novel, not only taking drugs but trying to corrupt her freshman roommate.  She is a liar and is willing to do anything to protect herself, even if it hurts others profoundly.  The lessons that the other characters in the novel say they learned are about how quickly lives can be ruined, how badly they acted, and how they should have never have done what they did.  The story itself points to a different conclusion: it wasn't the sex that was harmful, in itself, but rather the real problems were people's hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and their failure to see understand what really happened.  Although doomed to failure, the headmaster's instinct to cover up the incident was based on the correct view that everyone would be better off if it were kept quiet.  But of course, once newspapers and lawyers get involved, there is no hope of containing the event, and that's what ruins people's lives. 

This will be troubling to some readers because Shreve goes against the conventional wisdom about the vulnerability of young adolescents and the predatory nature of young men on sports teams.  It seems deliberately provocative, and not necessarily out of any real conviction, but more as a means of getting attention.  Here Shreve builds on her well-worn themes of crises in the lives of wealthy New Englanders, and ventures into the "ripped from the headlines" territory of Jodi Picoult.  To her credit, Shreve is never as blatantly crass and opportunistic as Picoult, but nevertheless the novel seems a one-sided depiction of teenage sexuality, complicated by the emotional failures of middle-aged parents.  It's a novel that works brilliantly at a surface level, but is disappointing and even unpleasantly manipulative at a deeper level. 

The unabridged audiobook is performed by a group cast, with different actors for each character.  It's a strong set of performances, consistent in energy and well recorded.

Link: Anita Shreve website

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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