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The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
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The Best Kind of People (2016)

by Zoe Whittall

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George Woodbury is a prep school science teacher in the affluent town of Avalon Hills and a hero in the town for having stopping a school shooting almost ten years earlier. But on the day of his daughter Sadie’s 17th birthday, the police come to arrest him for accusations of sexual misconduct with female students during a weekend field trip he was supervising. He is held in jail without bail until his trial date, which would not be for another eight months.

George insists he was being set up, but there were four different girls making the accusations.

The community’s judgment is immediate, as is, surprisingly, the family’s. The story takes us through the period leading up to the trial, as well as its aftermath. There are any number of tragic repercussions, as well as some unexpected twists.

As the author writes about Avalon Hills, this was a community that “seemed ripe for parody, with its perfect greenery, cafes boasting fair-trade coffee and chocolate, a yoga studio on every block, and its low high school dropout rate.”

Sadie was a reflection of the seemingly perfect families in Avalon Hills:

“Sadie was in the accelerated academic program, a group of well-regarded students who, barring a stint in the eating disorder wing or a trip to rehab for Adderall addiction, were all heading to prestigious universities. . . . They ate lunch in the student government lounge, because naturally they were the student government.”

After her dad is arrested, Sadie is worried about all kinds of things: how do you know if a person is really good or bad? What makes someone do something bad? What if criminal behavior is hereditary? Sadie was also plagued by not believing her own father. It was not that he ever gave any indication of the behavior he was accused of, but she was socialized - by her father himself! - to give victims the benefit of the doubt.

Sadie said to her brother Andrew: “Dad is fucked. We’re fucked. Hasn’t it totally shattered your image of him?”

George’s wife Joan, a nurse, looks for a medical explanation, wondering, what if George has a tumor that made him do it? What if he’s physically sick?

Both Sadie and Joan discovered that “. . . if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head - and people around you believe it - you can’t go back to thinking its completely inconceivable.” Because at some level, the very fact of the accusations had a persuasive effect.

Joan felt like “[s]omeone 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.”

Only Andrew, who is gay, has some doubts, because he knows how malicious high school girls can be from his own experiences: He tells his mom:

“Some of those girls accusing Dad, they look just like the girls who spit in my face, who had their boyfriends kick out my car headlights and kick me into a corner and then piss on me as I huddled there. That’s all I can see, when I see those girls - the evil suburban menace, you know?”

Meanwhile, not only George, but the rest of the family is now subject to the judgment and shunning of their community. How could the wife have been oblivious? She must be guilty of knowing or at least suspecting and not reporting it. And as for Sadie and Andrew, they are tainted by association: Sadie finds obscene graffiti on her things - “whore” and “Sadie Woodbury sucks big dicks!” And Andrew is pilloried by the local press for being gay, the implication being that the whole family is “perverted” in some way.

Sadie goes to stay at her boyfriend Jimmy’s house to get away from the harassment. Along with Jimmy’s mom Elaine, also living in the house is Elaine’s boyfriend and frustrated author Kevin. Kevin keeps stashes of pornography and pot in the house, and Sadie starts stealing his pot, as well as accepting Kevin’s offers to join him in smoking when he is around. Pretty soon she is turned off by Jimmy and fantasizing about Kevin. Kevin is paying a lot of attention to her and she misinterprets it.

Sadie gets more into drugs and drinking, and even gets a “dealer.” She blames her father. “Fuck my dad. Fuck him.”

But then there is an unforeseen development at the trial, and the family’s life is turned upside down once again.

Discussion: At the end of the book, a number of questions were left unanswered. But maybe the process was the point - i.e., what happened to everyone involved regardless of what the truth of the matter was.

It struck me as odd however, that not only does almost everyone almost immediately assume George’s guilt, but no one appears to be much interested in finding out the facts. There is a lot of discussion about rape and victimhood, and “he said” versus “she said” situations, but as for what specifically happened on the field trip, it seems not even George’s family is interested in the details.

I felt the author was making a point about the way this community turned on the family and tormented them, but there was also no “meta level” discussion about why they would do that. Wouldn’t a number of them feel sympathy toward the family or at least the kids? And if not, why not?

Finally, there aren’t really many likable characters in this book, with the exception of Sadie’s boyfriend Jimmy, who is, however, so clueless and feckless there is a limit to how much a reader can identify with him.

Evaluation: This would be an excellent book for book clubs. There are so many topics to discuss, from the specifics of the reaction of this family and community to the accusations, to the whole question of sexual misconduct accusations generally. One could also have a lively discussion about what different readers thought happened at the end; I would love to be in on that one! ( )
  nbmars | Oct 20, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
How would you react if your father or husband was accused of sexual misconduct toward young girls in his charge? George Woodbury, a beloved teacher, local hero, and old money WASP, is accused of inappropriate behavior on a ski trip with students. The novel focuses on how his family copes with the news. Daughter Sadie moves in with her boyfriend, and finds herself involved with and used by his mother's boyfriend, a writer. Wife Joan seeks help with a support group of women whose men are in jail for similar crimes. Son Andrew, an attorney who fled the little town in Connecticut for New York, pulls away from his longtime partner.
The strength of the book to me was that the reader doesn't know if George is guilty or innocent until near the end. The book is weakened by the ridiculous 'men's rights' group in town. I enjoyed the book and the characters, particularly daughter Sadie, who grows and changes in the course of the novel. ( )
  rglossne | Oct 16, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Oh my. The characters in this book drew me in. I found myself, at one time or another, identifying with each of them. To me that means that the author did a great job at character development. It's a book I didn't want to put down because I was anxious to find the resolve for all the people involved. Although I wouldn't have chosen the ending it seemed to fit someone with the character. Very well done. ( )
  DianaCoats | Oct 5, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Synopsis
George Woodbury, beloved teacher and literal school savior after stopping a would-be shooter several years before, has just been accused of sexually assaulting several high school students on a school ski trip. The Best Kind of People follows George’s family—his wife Joan, a local nurse; his son Andrew, who escaped the small town several years before; and his daughter Sadie, still a student at the high school. While delving into the victim-blaming and misogyny inherent in these cases, The Best Kind of People largely focuses on George’s family and the choices they make to survive.

One of Those Books
While it’s not the kind of thing anyone in their right mind daydreams about, having a close friend or spouse accused of this kind of crime is the kind of thing I think most people assume they know how they’d react to. I’d go so far as to say the comment threads on online news articles are proof of this—everyone has an opinion and everyone knows which side they’d be on if this were their life. In The Best Kind of People, Whittall takes that sense of reader righteousness and crumbles it all to pieces. There are no easy answers, characters waffle (understandably) on whether they should stand by their husband/father or not and make some bad choices. If the comment threads in news articles are black and white, The Best Kind of People is the spectrum of real-life grey in the middle.

Character Development
While his choices start the book, overall George is a minor character—Whittall makes it clear that he’s charming but doesn’t spend enough time on him to charm the reader. The main characters in the book are Joan and Sadie, with Andrew as a supporting character. With that said, though Whittall doesn’t come out and say one way or the other and the evidence is relatively sparse in the early chapters, my bent was to assume George did it. There are several girls who have nothing to gain from this kind of attention, combined with little things that Whittall includes that just feel…off. Whittall deliberately sets this up as the starting point—the reader is primed to assume George did, in fact, attempt to assault these girls. It is with this foundation that Whittall slowly reveals Joan and Sadie to us.

The easy way to go would be to encourage pity for Joan, to act like her sister Clara and tell her to leave George immediately. Yet, Joan struggles with leaving George. There are financial considerations on top of their twenty-plus years of life together. She has literally slept next to this man for more than twenty years and woke up to discover he was apparently never who she thought he was. The cheap score here would be for Joan to be simply two-dimensional—poor Joan still standing by her man or fiery Joan leaving scorched earth behind her in her attempt to leave. Instead, Whittall shows her struggle—she is alternately weak and strong, making choices that I don’t think I would make but that make sense in the moment (and maybe I would if I ever found myself in that horrifying place). The audience connects with Joan—cheers with Joan, cries with Joan. I would go so far as to say she has nearly universal appeal—the reader is invited to identify with Joan.

I couldn’t decide whether to hug or strangle Sadie at times, which probably means that Whittall did a fairly accurate job in rendering an American teenager. Sadie seems to have it all together, yet there are little indications, even before the accusations against her father, that Sadie isn’t entirely alright beneath the surface. While I identified more with Joan, I wanted the best for Sadie—she tugged at my heart. I knew Joan would be ok, but I was never sure about Sadie and held my breath for her until the end.

The oldest child, Andrew, is featured far less than Joan and Sadie but his inclusion adds more layers to the crimes committed by his father. The reader discovers early that Andrew himself was in an inappropriate relationship at 17 with his 25 year old coach. It’s clear that George’s crimes are not even the slightest morally ambiguous…but what about Andrew’s relationship with his coach? I have my opinion, but here too, is another question Whittall builds into her book. George is clearly on the wrong side of the line…but where is the line?

“Liberal Bias”
Besides the subject matter—which might generally be too triggering for some—the only “turn off” I could identify in the book was a bit of bias. The Woodbury family from the beginning is fairly liberal—the family would seem to universally identify as feminist (though George’s membership card is being revoked immediately) and Andrew is gay, with no real issue with his parents on that point. The family fits the stereotype of moneyed New Englanders. This isn’t terribly obnoxious in and of itself—it adds a layer of conflict for this to be a family that would otherwise believe the victim in this scenario and I appreciated the nuance this choice gave to the book.

The only place this “bias” feels like more than simply a character-development choice is with the inclusion of the “Mens’ Rights” group and the talk about them. When the Woodbury case gains attention, the Mens’ Rights vermin come crawling from their little holes and basements to support George—a development Joan can’t stand. In discussing their ridiculous propaganda in favor of her husband (even as she stands by his side), Joan makes a comment about people in the ring wing having "low IQs." The comment is in line with Joan’s character and it’s a comment made in the privacy of her home to her teenage daughter; however, I can see it being a touch too far for some readers since it is the only thing that feels like a personal attack on a belief a reader might identify with….Though conservative readers may not make it deep enough into the book to find this comment since the feminism and homosexuality might have turned them off well before this point.

Conclusion
The book does go through the result of the trial of the criminal charges as well as provide a resolution for Andrew, Sadie, and Joan. Each of the endings feels true—while this is not the only way for the book to have ended, these are realistic choices these characters would have made when faced with the totality of the circumstances.

Because of the moral ambiguity in some of the character’s choices (not George’s—that’s not morally ambiguous) and the quietly decisive but arguably controversial way the book ends, this book would make an excellent book club selection—I suspect people will have some opinions about the last few chapters. I also think it’s the kind of book that is going to be somewhat polarizing, giving the group a good mix of opinions on the family member’s choices—everything from Joan’s standing by/not standing by George, to Joan’s parenting choices, to Sadie’s lifestyle choices (literally—not using that as a euphemism), to Andrew’s youthful romance.

Overall, this was the kind of book I love—tightly written, politically/socially relevant, character-driven, complicated families, and morally ambiguous at times. I highly recommend for anyone who can handle these topics without being triggered. ( )
  ImLisaAnn | Oct 4, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I thought the book started out on a good foot but as it went on I found the characters not believable. ( )
  lvmygrdn | Oct 3, 2017 |
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Epigraph
After every war someone has to clear up. Things won't straighten themselves up, after all. Someone has to push the rubble to the side of the road, so the corpse-filled wagons can pass. Someone has to get mired in scum and ashes, sofa springs, splintered glass, and bloody rags. Someone has to drag in a girder to prop up a wall. Someone has to glaze a window, rehang a door. -- Wislawa Szymborska, "The End and the Beginning".
[Rape Culture's] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime... -- Kate Harding, Asking for It
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For Jake Pyne
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Almost a decade earlier, a man with a .45-70 Marlin hunting rifle walked through the front doors of Avalon Hills prep school.
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amazon ca : What if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable?

George Woodbury, an affable teacher and beloved husband and father, is arrested for sexual impropriety at a prestigious prep school. His wife, Joan, vaults between denial and rage as the community she loved turns on her. Their daughter, Sadie, a popular over-achieving high school senior, becomes a social pariah. Their son, Andrew, assists in his father’s defense, while wrestling with his own unhappy memories of his teen years. A local author tries to exploit their story, while an unlikely men’s rights activist attempts to get Sadie onside their cause. With George locked up, how do the members of his family pick up the pieces and keep living their lives? How do they defend someone they love while wrestling with the possibility of his guilt?

With exquisite emotional precision, award-winning author Zoe Whittall explores issues of loyalty, truth, and the meaning of happiness through the lens of an all-American family on the brink of collapse.
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