Trust Exercise is Susan Choi’s latest novel. Published in 2019, it has garnered mix reviews. Critics, for the most part, liked it, because of its unconventional structure and how it challenges the preconceived notions that people might have about how novels should be.
The Story: 1980s
The story starts in the 1980s and the setting is the Citywide Academy for Performing Arts (CAPA). It’s a kind of special high school that is focused on the arts and takes on talented students. It’s similar to the school in the movie Fame. The school is very exclusive and it is not easy to get accepted.
The story revolves around Sarah and David. They start dating during their first year in school. But as their sophomore year is about to begin, David dumps Sarah so he can meet other girls. Sarah was devastated by the development which she did not see coming. She was unsure as to how she can face David when they meet in school.
To make matters worse, Sarah is taking the same drama class as David and their drama teacher Mr. Kingsley, who is aware of their recent breakup, has a cruel idea on how to make their class more interesting. He pairs Sarah with David knowing that the tension between them can create fuel for them to act.
Mr. Kingsley encourages them to speak up and be open about their feelings. Sarah chooses the opportunity to ask David why he dumped her for one of her friends. David denies it but Sarah was satisfied because she can tell that she made David uncomfortable.
Then a group of students arrived from England, one of them fancies Sarah and she goes out on a few dates with him but she’s not happy so she ends it. She is consoled by Karen, her friend.
The Story: 1997
The story moves forward to 1997.
It is revealed that nothing in the first part of the story is true and it’s just a section of a novel that Sarah is writing. She is basing her novel on actual events but it’s not very clear which took place and which are just fruits of her imagination. The only part of the story which is verifiably true is that they attended CAPA.
The story now focuses on David who confides in Karen that one of the teachers they worked within CAPA, Martin, lost his job because of an alleged sexual assault. Karen confides in him that the story is probably true because Martin did the same thing with her when she was a student.
Though sorry about what happened to her, David asks Karen to audition for a play that was written by Martin. He does not inform her than aside from writing the play, Martin is also playing the lead male role.
Then the focus is back on Sarah. Karen asks her to discontinue writing her book since she is using information from others. Sarah maintains her innocence.
Karen then finds out that Martin is playing the lead in their play and she becomes so angry that she ends up shooting him in the genitals. The incident causes the play to be canceled. David is worried about the damage of the incident to the reputation of his theatre and Sarah is thrilled since she can use the incident for her book.
The last part shows Claire, who turns out to be Karen’s daughter with Martin whom she put up for adoption. Knowing her mother attended CAPA, she went there to ask for information. The dean promises to help her in return for sexual favors. She flees before he can do anything.
A Confused Storytelling
Susan Choi is an acclaimed writer and critics love her work. That being said, Trust Exercise is a confusing way of telling a story to say the least. The frequent jump of narrative means that readers fail to become engaged and be invested in the story.
Critics love the unconventional approach, with the whole first part being a novel within a novel. It’s all part of their attempt to deconstruct the novel. But for ordinary readers who are still looking for straightforward stories that do not have a whole trick behind it, it can be a very confusing experience.
For some, it can be very frustrating as well. Having invested in Sarah’s story, they would feel cheated to learn later on that none of it is true and that the writer is just ripping off the experience from other people’s experiences. This whole meta approach to fiction writing might be appealing to critics but for ordinary readers, it can lead to disappointment.
How can the writer expect ordinary readers to invest in any of the characters after that? With a plot twist and a surprise development lurking at any corner, the readers will stay detached from what’s happening in the world of the novel.
But another way to look at the book is to see it as three separate stories that have no connection to each other. When viewed in that way, it makes more sense and one can see a common theme in all three of the tales, including the third and final one, which is a kind of short epilogue.
The stories are about women whose trust was betrayed by men. A lot of women can identify with that, which is probably why the book has gained a substantial following.