Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: "The Best Kind of People" by Zoe Whittall

"When someone is your husband or father, that's simply who they are. You don't stop to question much about them, unless you're given reason to, and they'd never been given reason to."

The Woodbury family is well known in their suburban Connecticut town; in fact, the family has lived there for years and the Woodbury home is a fixture in the neighborhood. About 10 years ago, George, a popular science teacher at the town's prep school, thwarted a gunman who came into the school to kill one of the receptionists, so he has been viewed as a hero for some time. It's more than a bit of a shock when one night, George is arrested for allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with several female students.

The news ripples through the Woodbury family and their town, causing a multitude of reactions. George's steadfast wife, Joan, an ER nurse, cannot understand how the man she has known and loved and lived with and raised children with could be the person who did the things he's being accused of. Their 17-year-old daughter Sadie, smart and popular, suddenly finds herself a social pariah, and she isn't sure her father deserves the benefit of the doubt that everyone expects her to give him. Andrew, their son, who couldn't wait to leave their suffocating small town so he could finally be himself, is now a lawyer in New York City, and is struggling with memories of his past he has tried so hard to leave behind, as well as a partner who wants to support him and his family.

As the family grapples with reconciling the man they've known, or the man they thought they've known, with people's reactions toward his alleged crimes, they struggle with their own feelings. Did they miss the signs all along, did they deny seeing anything out-of-the-ordinary, or did all of this really come out of the blue? Is it part of a plot to discredit George, as he claims, or has he done a masterful job at hiding his true nature? Dealing with this on a day-to-day basis proves difficult for each of them in different ways, especially given those in their family and community who both want to help and who think they all should pay.

"Even if they turned out to be lies, those stories were there, obstacles between them, things she couldn't un-hear or un-imagine. Someone had taken Joan's only confidant, the one person who actually knew her completely, and her best friend, and replaced him with a monster. The person she knew and trusted was gone."

The Best Kind of People starts with an interesting premise, how well we truly know those we love, or if they are capable of pulling the wool over our eyes and harming others. We need to figure out if we're in any way to blame, either for somehow enabling the behaviors or denying their existence, or if the person's sins are all their own. It's also a story about the dynamics of a family who always thought had everything, only to find out there were lies underneath it all.

While this is a compelling albeit familiar storyline, the story gets a bit muddled when it looks at the social reaction to George's alleged crimes, pitting those who immediately believe what the girls accuse him of versus those more conservative voices in the community who believe women make false claims of sexual misconduct and rape simply to cover up their bad judgment or mistakes. Additionally, a thread in which a local author (who also happens to be dating the mother of Sadie's boyfriend) decides to write a book about the scandal, and manipulates Sadie to get information, felt a little bit creepy, and actually raised more questions that the story never answered. And honestly, I'm not really sure what the ending meant.

This is the first book of Zoe Whittall's I've ever read. She definitely knows how to unravel a story little by little, and create memorable characters. I felt that The Best Kind of People tried a little too hard to be dramatic, and actually wound up creating melodrama instead that undercut the story's power. But it's definitely an interesting story, even if the characters aren't as sympathetic as you'd expect them to be.

NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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