Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is not exactly what it seems. Though the story explores the ways adolescent experience reverberates through adulthood, it also brilliantly topples all expectations of narrative fiction.
The novel opens in the mid-1980s at an elite high school for the performing arts, where students compete for roles in a rarefied bubble of camaraderie and pressure. Two rising sophomores, David and Sarah, have an intense sexual relationship over one summer, which ends shortly after school begins. Their bitter breakup and estrangement become the talk of their classmates, and even their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley, seems obsessed as he invites Sarah to confide in him and continues to pair the two teens in classroom exercises. When a British director brings his troupe of young actors to the high school for an ill-fated production of Candide, Sarah is drawn into a hapless relationship with the production’s star while her bland classmate Karen pines for the group’s louche director.
Just when this hothouse atmosphere gets a bit too stifling, there is a shocking spiral of events that ricochets the action into the future and completely transforms the premise of the novel. What readers may have believed to be true about David, Sarah and Karen may not be true, but it may not be completely false either. It is not until the final pages of the novel’s short coda that another layer of events is uncovered and the complete picture falls into place. Or does it?
Trust Exercise questions the very nature of fiction, and in a novel that depicts the fluctuating power dynamics between parents and students, students and teachers, and men and women, it suggests that the one who has the most power is the one who remains to tell the final version of the story.
We trust novels to tell us a story exactly the way it happened, but fiction, Choi suggests, has its own rules.