Contemporary Literature

Trust Exercise

So, when I first started seeing the love/hate reviews for this book, my interest was peaked (you know how I love to read polarizing books, to see what my personal feels are – like The Pisces, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, etc.). But after reading the description, I just wasn’t feeling super into it, so I put it on the back burner. But then, it won the National Book Award for Fiction this year, so it moved up to the top. A few weeks later, my audiobook library hold came in…

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

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“Acting is truthful emotions in false circumstances.”

Trust Exercise takes place at an elite performing arts high school, complete with eccentric teachers, classes about music and movement and acting methods, and intense competition – all within a very “bubble”-like existence. The relationship between two students, Sarah and David, takes focus in the first part of the novel – noticed and toyed with by fellow students and teachers alike. And things get even more dramatic when an international student group comes to visit/perform on campus. Then, there’s a switch in time and perspective and everything you thought you knew about Sarah and David and their experiences is tossed around like in a salad mixer…and what you thought you knew turns out to maybe not be what you knew at all. And then the mix of true and false and different perspective interpretations all comes together in a headlong rush when the last section’s POV drops the final piece of the puzzle into place.

I finished this about a week ago and have taken this long to sit down and try to get my thoughts on “paper” because I legitimately am not even sure what to think or feel…or truly if I even picked up on/understood all the connections that I was supposed to. I guess let me say some things I am sure about. First, the writing. OMG the writing. It was smart and precise to an extreme. I don’t know what exactly the judges reasoning was for it winning the NBA, but I can assure you that a good part of the justification had to be the writing itself. I cannot do it justice here – it was perfect for the setting and for capturing and evoking all the self-centered, haughty, theatrical emotions that run rampant in all high schools, but particularly high level competitive/achieving ones like this. But just trust me, if you value writing over anything else in a novel, then you should absolutely pick this one up. Sarah and David’s part of the story, which took at least the first half, I would say, did a great job setting the high school age scene and feels, and although nothing especially exciting or unique happened, the way it was written about was compelling enough that I felt pulled along by the current of the story.

And then, the second perspective pulled the rug out from under me in a way that I loved! It wasn’t fast or clear that it happened, but all of a sudden, I realized everything I had thought was flipped on its head. It was phenomenal the way that Choi was able to so smoothly take this second perspective and rewrite, if you will, the entire story she had just told you. And it happened in such a subtle way! Spectacular. Plus, the voice of the second character was one of my favorites I’ve ever read. It wasn’t one that I especially identified with, but it was so particular and idiosyncratic – so strongly individual and tangible and really recognizable – I just wished that more of the story was from that voice because I appreciated Choi’s skill in writing it so much.

Now we get to the parts I’m not so sure about. The plot, if you will…the event that ends that second section and then the event that ends the third section. I just don’t know about them. Here’s the thing, I get what happened at the end of the second perspective – I totally understand what happened and what led to it and why the narrator made her decision (I’m trying to be vague to avoid spoilers), but also, I’m not so sure I buy it. It feels like it’s something she would imagine doing, and want to do, but not actually pull off. Maybe I’m wrong (I mean, I clearly am) and I won’t lie, I totally applaud what she did as far as emotional release and just desserts, but it felt a little wrong. And then the last POV/section. I liked the way that, for the most part, it shed some necessary light on the events that occurred/were recalled in the first two parts. I liked the choice of narrator for it and overall how it was portrayed, as well as the very last scene (it was super touching and sweet in a way that pained my heart to read). And yet, I was confused by a few things when I closed the book and I’m still not satisfied with my thoughts/interpretations of them. There is one major character in this section that I don’t know who he is supposed to be, or have any explanation for why he acted the way he did (which, btw, EWWW GROSS NO). Truly, I am just…without explanation. And it’s very unsettling and unsatisfying. Maybe I just missed a clue somewhere, and the author definitely didn’t “help” by doing some weird things with character name changes throughout, but it just doesn’t feel understandably wrapped up for me.

The very last lines/moment were quite striking, causing me to legitimately say “whoa” out load. And yet, I don’t know if that, and the writing of course, were enough to counteract the holes in my overall comprehension of the story. I totally understand how the lovers loved it so much, especially for anyone with a theater-involved background (which I do not have, personally), but I also definitely understand some of the “hate” feelings as well. Anyways, I respect this novel very much and would simultaneously be very open to someone dropping me a comment/message that explains that male character in the final section and, if he is supposed to be a re-visit of a character from an earlier section, who is he?! And if not, then what the heck was the point of some of those scenes at his house?!

Bottom line, this is a really intellectually written, meta-feeling and experimentally plotted novel. Even though I have a few questions left at the end, ones to which the answers feel frustratingly just out of reach, I can’t deny the beauty and gripping nature of the writing.

8 thoughts on “Trust Exercise

    1. It was a gorgeously written book! Like I said, I totally see why it won NBA for Fiction, even though I still have lots of questions about the ending. And I’m so glad to hear it sounds like your reading year has been great!

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