A Review of Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People
Review by Sally Cooper
Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People is a riveting social novel centred around a rape accusation. George Woodbury, an established, beloved, even heroic, teacher is arrested for sexual assault at a Connecticut prep school. Whittall zeroes in on the perspectives of his wife, daughter and son over the course of the year following his incarceration in this engaging, incisive novel.
Unlike those novels where a social issue can feel “dropped into” the story, The Best Kind of People uses multiple perspectives to consider the nuanced effects of an allegation on those who love the accused. George’s wife, Joan, for instance, is a triage nurse, accustomed to doling out compassion or, as her daughter Sadie puts it, going “to work and help[ing] a dozen people live through the night.” Joan’s story is a long twist of denial and empathy, her perspective both frustrating and relatable (bringing to mind Julianna Margulies’ turn in “The Good Wife” as a woman supporting her husband in the wake of his political sex scandal). Unlike her mother, seventeen-year-old Sadie feels the uncertainty of George’s position acutely. She is aware of how the charge alters her perception of her father, whether he’s guilty or not. Sadie’s adult brother, Andrew, frames his father’s plight through a distinct lens, one informed by his own consensual relationship with a teacher when he was seventeen.
Through these characters’ experiences and those of a few others close to them, Whittall adeptly mines the gray areas of accusation and consent without ever letting up on the reality of an allegation of sexual assault and its aftermath. Family members, for instance, are implicated despite themselves when a loved one is charged. As does Elaine Friedman in the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” (and, indeed, Alicia Florrick in “The Good Wife”), Joan must face the media asking, “how could a wife of over twenty years not know her husband’s predilections?” Whittall invites us, furthermore, not to forget that “The law is the law….You can’t reconfigure this with your sexual liberation theory of law, or whatever.”
Refreshingly, Whittall includes some delicious peripheral characters such as an author who hopes to exploit George’s story and a staff member at the prep school who forms a Men’s Rights group to support George. Whittall has fun with their threads, gently skewering the characters’ self-importance in such lines as, “What’s happening to your father is a symptom of what is wrong with young women today. Men are victimized, and no one cares. Does that sound right to you?”
Whittall sets the stage early with the novel’s stance on truth: “But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol. The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.” Remarkably, the novel considers a diverse range of truths without ever betraying this mandate.
Throughout The Best Kind of People, Whittall steers clear of pronouncements of guilt or innocence, making space for her characters to face down their own perceptions (much like what happens in real life) until late in the novel when George’s lawyer, Bennie, delivers some hard information about rape couched in legal double talk: “The majority of sex offenders are very adept at living completely double lives….Though I must emphasize that this is just an accusation, it hasn’t been proven.” And while the situation resolves at the novel’s end, the changes wrought by the events settle in the characters in various unpredictable ways.
Zoe Whittall has published three previous novels and three poetry collections. She was the 2008 winner of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. Whittall has always proved a savvy fiction writer, well aware of the vagaries of the times, but this novel, more than her earlier fiction, smoothly integrates contemporary mores while questioning the multiplicity of truths that arise around a transgression. The Best Kind of People is all-of-a-piece and well worth the read not only for what it adds to the conversation about accusation and rape, but also for the pleasure it offers to those who like a good story.
Editor's Note: The Best Kind of People has been shortlisted for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize.