Testimony by Anita Shreve

August 4, 2009

testimony Plot summary (with spoilers): Told from the points of view of numerous characters, Testimony describes a sex scandal at Avery Academy in Vermont. Two senior boys, both 18, and a 19-year-old postgraduate student were filmed engaging in sexual acts with a 14-year-old freshman girl. Parts of the film get posted on YouTube, and the original video is eventually confiscated and brought to headmaster Mike Bordwin. Mike immediately recognizes the three boys as Rob Leicht, James “J-Dot” Robles, and Silas Quinney. He is shocked at what he sees, but instead of going to the police, decides to handle the matter internally.

Towards that end, Mike calls James and Rob into his office. Silas is missing, but Mike will deal with him later. In the meantime, he asks James and Rob questions, but neither boy is wiling to speak much about the incident. Still, they know there’s not much they can say in their defense since Mike has the tape and their faces are clearly visible. So, Mike gets them to write out and sign confessions — without the benefit of legal or parental counsel.

The whole story comes out in bits and pieces, as each character contributes his or her side of the events in question. Along with Mike and the three male participants, we also get “testimony” from Sienna, the girl on the tape; Anna Quinney, Silas’ mother; Owen Quinney, Silas’ father; Noelle, Silas’ girlfriend; Rob’s mother; and various other students and officials.

Along the way author Anita Shreve explores how one single incident, a night of debauchery, a few minutes of a sex tape can utterly ruin a whole bunch of lives, marriages, futures, and careers.

Liked:

  • I liked the main theme of the book, that of one mistake being able to ruin an entire life. As someone who has made this type of monumental mistake (not sex related, fortunately), I fully understood just how quickly everything can go to hell.
  • I thought Shreve’s basic premise had the potential to be an engrossing read. A sex scandal at a school for privileged kids and a subsequent cover-up on the part of the headmaster because he was having an affair with the mother of one of the participants? Sounds good! But alas, the execution was terrible.

Disliked:

  • I have no idea why Shreve thought it would be better to tell the story from so many different points of view. This simply served to dilute the reading experience and prevent me from getting to know any of the characters very well. Plus, the choice to use the second-person “you” for a couple of the narrators and to use present tense with another one was highly distracting and annoying.
  • None of the characters was likable, except perhaps Noelle. The girl Sienna was your stereotypical calorie-counting, crevax-downing airhead, while the boys were just clique-ish jocks. That made me not care what happened to any of them, and really made the events of the novel seem very distant and unimportant.
  • I hated that Shreve didn’t delve into Anna’s motivations for having an affair with Mike. For his part, it was clear that Meg was too distant of a wife and didn’t care much about their marriage. But what was wrong with Anna and Owen’s marriage? Why would Anna risk everything just for a few tumbles in the sack with a loser like Mike? I think that deserved an explanation.
  • Surprisingly, Shreve did ask why the boys would do something as stupid as film themselves having sex with an underage girl. But come on, I don’t think it takes a psych degree to come up with the answer to that. Teenage boys + booze + sex. It’s not like anyone was thinking of the consequences there. That’s pretty normal teen behavior — that just happened to get caught on tape.
  • Silas’ death was kind of dumb and didn’t seem like something the character would do. Growing up on a farm in Vermont, he had to be perfectly aware of how dangerous the cold weather was — especially up on a wooded hill or whatever. I just didn’t buy him running off like that.

My Rating:
Testimony by Anita Shreve could have been a good book if the author had told the story in a straightforward manner and took the time to develop the characters. Since everything was told in the form of “testimony” to the researcher, the reader was essentially hearing about stuff that happened “off screen”, which significantly dampened the effect of the novel. I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

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