Cover image for Trust exercise : a novel / Susan Choi.
Trust exercise : a novel / Susan Choi.
First Edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Henry Holt and Company : distributed in Canada by Raincoast, 2019.
Physical Description:
257 pages ; 25 cm
In 1982 in a southern city, David and Sarah, two freshmen at a highly competitive performing arts high school, thrive alongside their school peers in a rarified bubble, ambitiously devoting themselves to their studies--to music, to movement, to Shakespeare and, particularly, to classes taught by the magnetic acting teacher Mr. Kingsley. It is here in these halls that David and Sarah fall innocently and powerfully into first love. And also where, as this class of students rises through the ranks of high school, the outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and the future, does not affect them--until it does--in a sudden spiral of events that brings a startling close to the first part of this novel.


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" Enlists your heart as well as your mind. . . . Packed with wild moments of grace and fear and abandon. "
-- The New York Times

"Book groups, meet your next selection."

"[Choi is] a master of emotional pacing. . . . You won't be disappointed."
-- The Washington Post

In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving "Brotherhood of the Arts," two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed--or untoyed with--by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.

The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school's walls--until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true--though it's not false, either. It takes until the book's stunning coda for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place--revealing truths that will resonate long after the final sentence.

As captivating and tender as it is surprising, Susan Choi's Trust Exercise will incite heated conversations about fiction and truth, and about friendships and loyalties, and will leave readers with wiser understandings of the true capacities of adolescents and of the powers and responsibilities of adults.

Author Notes

Susan Choi is the author of the novels My Education , A Person of Interest , American Woman , and The Foreign Student . Her work has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award and the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction. With David Remnick, she co-edited Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker . She's received NEA and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. She lives in Brooklyn.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Choi's superb, powerful fifth novel, after 2013's My Education, marries exquisite craft with topical urgency. Set in the early 1980s, the book's first section depicts the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, an elite high school in an unnamed Southern city. Galvanized by the charged atmosphere created by the school's magnetic theater teacher, Mr. Kingsley, 15-year-old classmates Sarah and David have an intense sexual relationship the summer between their freshman and sophomore years. Sarah, who has taken its secrecy for granted, is horrified when David makes their romance public that fall. She repudiates him, the two spend the year estranged, and she grows increasingly isolated until an English theater troupe makes an extended visit to the school. When she is pursued by one of the troupe's actors at the same time her classmate Karen falls in love with its director, the two young women form a fraught, ambivalent bond. The novel's second segment reintroduces the characters a dozen years later, shifting from Sarah's perspective into to a new viewpoint that casts most of what readers thought they knew into doubt. After the tensions of the past culminate in an act at once shocking and inevitable, a brief coda set in 2013 adds a final bold twist. Choi's themes-among them the long reverberations of adolescent experience, the complexities of consent and coercion, and the inherent unreliability of narratives-are timeless and resonant. Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

if YOU'VE ever done time in a school cafeteria, you know the feeling of standing at the edge of a table where the last seat is being saved for someone else. This is the feeling I had while reading Susan Choi's "Trust Exercise," a perplexing novel about a group of theater kids at a prestigious performing-arts high school. The story begins in 1982, in a nameless Southern town - one with "no bodies of water, no drainage, no hills, no topographical variety of any sort." Arriving in the summer, as we do, you can smell the boredom wafting off housing complexes so vast and uniform, one teenager chalks an "X" on her gate just to distinguish it from all the others. This is Sarah, who is in love with her fellow thespian David in that white-hot way where they pretend he's picking her up for a game of racquetball even though they both know they won't leave the house until her mom comes home from work. It's that kind of summer, the best kind. The trouble starts when Sarah and David return to CAPA (Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts) and their relationship suddenly includes a third party: their teacher, Mr. Kingsley, who has the outsize magnetic pull of an adult assigning roles to teenagers. (Anyone who has tried out for a school play will know the type.) He subjects the students to a series of trust exercises that at first seem benign. Sarah and David sit facing each other, repeating variations on the same line: "Your eyes are blue." "My eyes are blue." "Your eyes are blue." Over and over again, until the two of them learn something about each other and the relationship falters. It may sound silly, but it's not. There's a profundity to these early scenes that reminds you of the power of sustained eye contact. The relationship is the first domino to fall. Then friendships fizzle and new alliances form. A troupe from a British school arrives to perform "Candide," and when they bunk in students' homes, politics and late-night revelry ensue. There are some awkward sex scenes ("His dead white hairy limbs appeared impaled on the stem of his unaccountably wrinkly erection which he took in his fist and seemed to squirt redly at her"). There's a lot of car envy. There's the enmeshed mom who lends out pajamas in exchange for confidences and a "cuddle." There are standing ovations and there is cruelty. (This is 1982 - not an easy time to be gay, no matter how old you are.) We're chugging along, enjoying Choi's tart commentary, until the halfway mark, when she fast-forwards a dozen years and the story goes off the rails. Suddenly, we're at a bookstore where Sarah - now grown, now a writer - is giving a reading from a novel based on her high school days. We're with "Karen," who is not actually Karen, whose adult life is still very much wrapped up in the CAPA world in ways I won't reveal here. Suffice it to say: This is when we understand how left out we've been. We're not just at the wrong lunch table; we're in the wrong building, climbing a staircase that leads to a locked door to the roof (and, contrary to suburban legend, there's no pool out there). Unfortunately, Choi's bait and switch doesn't feel playful or experimental. It's not "Gone Girl" cleverness or the amusing frustration of an unreliable narrator. It's total confusion. I had this sense of having followed someone blindly through a warren of circuitous sentences, minus the usual mile markers of chapter breaks, and suddenly being abandoned. In the end, the experience of reading " Trust Exercise" is reminiscent of the most famous trust exercise of all: the one where you fall backward into your partner's outstretched arms. You believe your partner will catch you. In this case, she doesn't. ELISABETH EGAN is the author of "A Window Opens," co-host of the Broken Harts podcast and correspondent behind @100postcards.

Library Journal Review

In the first half of this latest novel from Choi (My Education), Sarah is studying at a performing arts high school in the 1980s. Owing to adolescent miscommunication, her summer romance with fellow student David crumbles once school resumes in the fall. Drama teacher Mr. Kingsley takes his students through acting exercises that seem to cross boundaries of appropriateness, particularly when involving teenagers with raging hormones and volatile emotions. A visiting theater troupe from England adds to the chaos, which has repercussions decades later. The novel's second section takes a somewhat metafictional approach, as "Karen," a minor character in the first half, objects to the fictional approach taken by "Sarah" in recounting the events in her novel. Throughout, Choi neither sentimentalizes nor trivializes the emotional lives of the teens. Whether by design or chance, the first half of the novel feels "truer" than the more contrived plot machinations of the second half, in which several characters reencounter one another during a play production a decade later. The latter, retrospective approach serves best in examining the confusion and ambiguity of teenage sexuality and how that can be exploited. VERDICT Recommended for readers who invite direct challenges to the novelistic form. [See Prepub Alert, 10/29/18.]-Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.