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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Friday, January 17, 2014

Coping with Loss

The Headmaster's WifeThe Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is like a play in three acts with a prologue and the epilogue left to the reader. The story starts with a man, who in time we discover is a headmaster of an exclusive prep school in Vermont, walking into New York's Central Park and casting off his clothes until he is walking nude along its paths in the cold winter morning air. Without much delay he has been arrested and sits in an interrogation room with two of New York's finest trying to explain himself. Certainly, an arresting opening.

The first act is 137 pages long and within the first twenty pages I am disgusted and think I will not read this book. As a retired teacher in Vermont, the idea of a fifty something headmaster taking advantage of an 18 year old student is totally repulsive. But, I think, there must be more to this, so I continue reading. Turns out this guy is the third generation headmaster here at Lancaster and, though that makes him a multigeneration Vermonter, he has all the arrogance and elitist attitude of the moneyed students he supervises. But not all of them are moneyed--Betsy, who becomes his obsession, is brilliant and comes from Craftsbury, where her father teaches carpentry in a small college ( think Sterling ) and our " hero " wonders why a carpenter would need a college education. He also considers Craftsbury to be Podunk--guess he's never been there or Peacham either--another nowhere place! As the play continues I begin to think, nope this book is a waste--where the heck is the woman of the title? What is all this obsessive sex with a child--but then I stop to think and I realize, wait a minute. I know what is going on and what has happened and I continue to read to find if the clues I'm beginning to notice add up. The final page of act one verifies my first hypothesis.

Act two opens by verifying my second. Where the first act is in the headmaster's voice with interruptions from his interrogators, the second act is all the wife. In 114 pages she tells the story, too. Some of it is a repetition of his account but from an entirely different perspective. Where his telling is obsessive and grating and full of hubris yet somehow pathetic, hers is heart-wrenchingly, achingly sad. By the end of her telling, you find yourself reevaluating him and, though he is no more likeable than ever, there is sadness for him, too. For them both in equal measure for different reasons.

Act three is very short. A man, who as a student, loved and was loved by the headmaster's wife and who was seriously harmed by the headmaster in their youth, returns and is reunited with her. There is no real emotion on her part--more of an acceptance of all that has gone before. He feels a resurgence of the love he felt for her over 40 years ago and maybe never stopped feeling. But it is too soon for either of them to look ahead. And so the story ends, looking over the flowing Hudson River, indifferent and eternal, as so much of the story took place looking over the Connecticut River, just as indifferent and eternal.

The place and characters are so true to life. I live in the Connecticut River Valley and taught at what wanted to be an exclusive prep school, but hasn't quite made it, despite having driven most of the locals away by high taxes and having been overwhelmed with a Dartmouth affiliated influx, with their often-times entitled children. Actually, the fooling around with students wasn't very rampant there but the elitist attitude of several headmasters and faculty existed. Though not a residential school the similarities were familiar. The themes of alienation, love and grief are universal, however and no matter the circumstances humans will respond with bare souls to them--no artifice, no protection. Each one will have to form its own way of coping and protecting the vulnerable core of self. This tells the story of two such people.

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