It begins with something extraordinary.
“Almost a decade earlier, a man with a .45-70 Marlin hunting rifle walked through the front doors of Avalon Hills prep school. He didn’t know that he was about to become a living symbol of the age of white men shooting into crowds.”
Readers are immediately alerted to the idea of a threat which can burst into an everyday scene. Something as alarming as a man with a high-powered weapon, erupting into a school hallway, seeking revenge.
But there is another man, too, who tackles him, sparking a “graceless pas de deux of grappling, the gun discharged an aimless bullet”.
The gunman is not presented as inhuman. He has challenges; he faces some of them down in a more reasonable fashion, but others have brought him to the edge of violence, to this school hallway.
But when he sees Sadie in front of her locker, in the hallway, he consciously acknowledges that he is not a killer-of-children.
Although he might have been a killer-of-a-girlfriend, except he is interrupted.
First, by the presence of the girl, but then by George Woodbury, the prep-school science teacher who tackles him. In this scenario, George is a hero.
“He was a fixture in town. He remained the man from Woodbury Lake who’d saved the children.”
And the book is about The Best Kind of People. So readers will expect it to be about George.
“Say the words wealthy and Protestant and picture a family. That’s them, or close enough.”
And, it is. But now? It’s a decade later.
George’s role is about to change dramatically.
“No one saw it coming.”
Two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers come to the door.
Against a backdrop of flashes of red and blue through the open windows, “a light show for the symphony of cicadas”, George is cuffed in the foyer.
“Sexual misconduct with four minors, attempted rape of a minor. The words didn’t make sense.”
And none of this is extraordinary.
The most unsettling bit of all – how ordinary it is.
How often is there a gap between what we expected and what transpired: it happens all the time.
True, the gap between the George Woodburys is a sizeable gap. One, devoted father, who tackled an armed gunman to the floor, while his daughter (yes, that girl in the hallway was his daughter – Sadie); the other, George Woodbury, accused rapist.
Sadie attends school with these girls, the victims/accusers. One of them is the younger sister of Sadie’s good friend, Amanda. One of them. Because it is now a question of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Whether an instinctive understanding of vulnerability or a contrary perversity fuelled by hormones, Sadie does not automatically assume her father is innocent. Wife (and mother), Joan, falls solidly into the role of loyal helpmeet and supporter. Andrew, the older son who has lived away from home for some time, puts his legal training to work and aims for neutrality, while following courtroom protocol to support his father’s case.
This is skillful plotting on Zoe Whittall’s part, allowing her to explore several positions on the spectrum, while the question of George’s guilt/innocence is examined, formally and informally. (And the pacing and language conspire so that every scene seems to probe into dark corners, creating the sense that, at any moment, someone could drag some torn bit of truth into the spotlight.)
As the story develops, this might have become a courtroom drama, but that’s not the intent of The Best Kind of People, in which the injured and the personal acts of betrayal/reparation which play out on the most intimate levels.
“She didn’t automatically trust anyone anymore. Trust was now something that required an extra beat, a moment of consideration.” (So many characters might have this thought: leaving it unattributed avoids spoilers.)
Whether or not there is adequate evidence to dismiss/exonerate/convict is less important than how the people closest to George respond to the evidence, how they cope in the absence of evidence, how they perceive the need for it for themselves and for others.
And how one lives their ordinary life, while all of these questions loom: that’s perhaps most important of all.
“They’d been back at school for one week. Their senior year in high school at Avalon prep had begun with aplomb. They were both in the accelerated stream, their sights set on prestigious universities, afternoons filled with student government meetings, sporting events, community volunteer hours, making out between the rows of woody ancient texts inhe school library. The week had been busy and thus ordinary. This was the last weekend that anything would feel normal until they were halfway through college.”
In this context, busy is equated with ordinary.
When one’s father/husband is arrested, time slows. There is nothing to do but wait. Wait for a verdict, wait for a resolution, wait for permission to move on.
Readers know from the beginning that this will happen, at least for Sadie. Even in this early passage, only one week after the arrest, readers are assured that things will eventually feel normal for Sadie. Just as they did after the gunman entered those school halls. Now she is in her senior year and nothing feels ordinary, but by the time she is halfway through college, she will feel that again.
What readers do not yet know is what happens in those two years, what transpires to restore a sense of normalcy in her life.
The Best Kind of People is preoccupied with that waiting period, although it does not chart the entire timeline.Throughout, there are small shifts in perception and understanding, and broader experiences of underlying issues (trust and acceptance, authority and betrayal, disregard and denial, consent and vulnerability, isolation and care-taking). So while the narrative displays the quotidien (who is sitting outside the neighbourhood coffee shop and the number of times someone gets high), the complexity brewing beneath is ever-in-motion.
Peripheral family members dart into and settle into spheres of influence, as the crisis unfolds: relationships bloom and recede in the face of pressure. In George’s absence, gaps between other characters narrow and widen, raising other questions about intimacy and loyalty. Members of Sadie’s boyfriend’s family are key in her struggle to reorient herself. Even the minor characters have agency (and opinions).
In her prior novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, Zoe Whittall’s character Billy observes: “The more strangers think they know who you are, the less you feel you know yourself. Or worse, you might believe them.”
This concept is at play in The Best Kind of People too: the line between knowing and believing will not hold still.
So many questions are raised in the narrative, about sexuality, agency, independence, identity, responsibility, compassion, respect, authenticity, and, of course, justice.
Very ordinary questions. Very hard questions.