The Best Kind of People, Zoe Whittall
(House of Anansi Press)
Reviewed by Adèle Barclay
Originally published by the Literary Review of Canada
Zoe Whittall’s third novel, The Best Kind of People, demarcates a pivot point for the Canadian novelist, screenwriter and poet known for her realist novels that depict queer and trans characters’ lives in Toronto and Montreal. The book follows the disintegration of an affluent all-American family in the wake of patriarch George Woodbury’s arrest for attempted rape and sexual misconduct with minors. A group of 14-year-old girls at the elite private school in New England where George, a local hero and respected teacher, works come forward with the allegations after a ski trip. Opening with George’s arrest, the story surveys the reverberations of the shocking news in the lives of those caught in its ripple effect.
As with her previous novels Bottle Rocket Hearts and Holding Still for As Long As Possible, Whittall’s interest here is in how we forge intimate relationships while at the mercy of forces—politics, chance, tragedy—beyond our control. The allegations against George tear apart the reality of his wife, Joan, their teenaged daughter, Sadie, and their son, Andrew, a lawyer living in New York City, who returns to his rural Connecticut hometown, a reluctant prodigal son, in order to defend his father’s case. There Andrew, who is gay, is forced to reckon with his high-school sweetheart—a closeted gym teacher whom he dated while still a student. Meanwhile, young Sadie takes a rebellious turn from model student to stoner, fluctuating between destructive behaviour and small moments of clarity where she observes how this rupture in her family and town plays out socially. Many figures, including the mayor, support her father, and she begins to perceive the class and racial dynamics that inform her pocket of upper-class Connecticut.
As the family unravels, Whittall locates this potent moment to illuminate how power, misogyny, violence and class are enmeshed in thorny, subtle ways. Joan, a hyper competent matriarch, retreats inward, even having her groceries delivered, so she can dodge the media circus and swirling questions about her complicity in George’s alleged crimes. As she considers the possibility that her loving husband is an abuser and a liar, the beautiful lakeside mansion where she lives suddenly looms large and lonely.
As for the once-popular Sadie, she is caught in the crossfire between the students who believe her father and those who believe the girls. She questions her mother’s and brother’s deeply rooted denial. And the Men’s Rights Activists who make a cause of liberating her father present a particularly bristly challenge. Sadie’s clarity seems almost far-fetched at times, but she also exists at that precarious moment where her feminist ideals—taught to her, ironically, by her father—are being tested in the real world. Her arrival at an MRA meeting gets at her conflicted position:
She nodded at them. They were people her father would call delusional nutbars. But some weird part of her wanted to believe them. Because if what they were saying was true, she could defend her father, she could take all the confusion she felt and turn it into something concrete. It was an answer.
To call Whittall’s The Best Kind of People timely is an understatement. Rape culture is not new, but we are at a moment when mainstream discourse on sexual assault is starting to take shape. Recent high-profile sexual assault cases such as Bill Cosby’s and Jian Ghomeshi’s have provoked discussion and an elucidation of issues of abuse, power and consent. As the Stanford University rape case demonstrated with its institutional victim shaming and the survivor’s powerful personal statement, we are simultaneously stumbling toward understanding and a regressive pushback when it comes to rape. The Best Kind of People explores the pervasiveness of rape culture, but from the even more deeply complex vantage point of the alleged abuser’s inner circle.
George’s own perspective remains largely unknown throughout the narrative as he awaits trial in prison, glimpsed only briefly through occasional visits. He is a blank screen upon which characters hurl feelings and agendas. The black hole of his character is a moral choice on Whittall’s part—like his family, we will never know if he is guilty.
The Best Kind of People’s fully fleshed-out characters, intuitively detailed environments and patiently wrought domestic portraits are in keeping with Whittall’s lauded style. As explosive as its starting point is, the novel dwells in the minutiae of the everyday and its unseen emotional valences—grocery lists, laundry, morning rituals. Some of its most poignant yet fraught moments come when Joan attends a support group for women with partners in prison. Whittall captures her complicated perspective:
She felt simultaneously grateful that these other women existed and totally judgmental of them. … She hated the women in the group when they talked slowly, or mispronounced words, or cried, or expressed shame for staying with their husbands. She hated them because she could relate to them, and that meant she didn’t know who she was becoming, who she had been, who she was supposed to be.
In the midst of all the drama, a local novelist exploits the family’s story for his own Jonathan Franzen-esque aspirations. His inclusion is a self-aware gesture that calls attention to the literary tradition of the Great American Novel, which deploys feminine experiences while seldom including those voices in its canon. Whittall slyly announces her own take on the form. Queer, femme and Canadian, she is surely an outlier of the American literary establishment. But she initiates a dialogue with it by veering away from George’s perspective and centering the experiences of the women, girls and queer folks. Even though Andrew, Sadie and Joan are tasked with supporting George, and have only positive memories of him, Whittall shows the varying degrees to which people on either side of a scandal can be enmeshed in rape culture, confronting it or constantly abiding it.
The Best Kind of People does not merely speak to its time: it grapples with some of the issues surrounding rape culture at their most intimate and urgent. This is not a story of triumph over trauma; it is about how we live with trauma daily. Whittall knows that these are familiar stories that are just beginning to be told.
As they come out, it becomes possible for more survivors to come forward. But the revelations summon complex and deeply conflicted responses. We have been trained to think of abusers as one-dimensional monsters, and to sweep abuse under the rug. Clearly, these approaches are failing us. Abusers are not always obviously shady villains—sometimes they are charismatic people we love and respect. While I was reading The Best Kind of People for this review, someone I once dated was accused of assaulting dozens of women and underage girls, of using his status as a lead singer in a famous hardcore band, and the cloak of his progressive politics, to prey on fans. As our culture begins to broach actual conversations about rape, we are going to have our beliefs challenged not only in the abstract, but in very real ways. This is why The Best Kind of People is Whittall’s bravest, finest hour: she articulates all of this grief and the grey aura it radiates. The novel may not resolve the grief of trauma, but it is one of the few narratives I have encountered that truly holds it.
Adèle Barclay is CWILA’s 2017 Critic-in-Residence. She is a writer and critic currently based in Vancouver. Her poems and criticism have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, PRISM international, The Literary Review of Canada, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Lit POP Award for Poetry and has been shortlisted for the 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, was shortlisted for the 2015 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and was published by Nightwood Editions this fall. She is the Interviews Editor at The Rusty Toque and a community poetry ambassador for Vancouver’s Poet Laureate Rachel Rose. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Victoria and researches modern and contemporary queer poetry.