If books were people, Susan Choi's "Trust Exercise" (Henry Holt, 257 pp., $27) is the type that starts out as your new best friend — magnetic, intelligent, attractive, fun-loving. But as you get deeper into the relationship, you realize how tightly wound, complicated and possibly untrustworthy she really is, which actually makes you more interested, if a little leery. There are choices she makes that you don't agree with, but you end up regarding her with respect.
The book opens on campus — not a college, as in Choi's intense, scorching hot novel "My Education" — but a performing arts high school in a "vast southern city" that seems to be Houston (confirmed in the Acknowledgments). It is sometime in the 1980s. Our main characters are ravenous young lovers David and Sarah, whose ecstatic bond is broken by a foolish but unfixable misunderstanding, then aggravated by endless pointed improv exercises performed under the aegis of their meddling, all-powerful, possibly predatory drama teacher. Though the tone is substantially darker than "Glee" or "Fame," those who love the drama of high school drama will be right at home.
The story plays out in three distinct sections, each called "Trust Exercise," each making a radical shift in point of view. Though it's not as much of a thought experiment as Lisa Halliday's recent "Asymmetry," its narrative switchbacks are similarly fun for the reader, making you think harder than usual and re-evaluate what you've already read. And like "Asymmetry," it's about issues of our cultural moment: who gets to tell the story, the relationship between fiction and truth, intergenerational sex. As experienced readers of Choi know, her writing about sex is powerful and immediate, sometimes sexy and sometimes uncomfortable.
Throughout the book, Choi's depiction of the thinking and behavior of young women, not unlike Curtis Sittenfeld's, is both empathetic and merciless — much like the young women themselves. "In high school, Karen and Sarah had done everything to their hair they could think of except take care of it," Choi writes. "They had bleached it, shaved it, permed it, dyed it, as girls do when vandalizing themselves seems the best way of proving that their bodies are theirs." As it turns out, Karen and Sarah have vandalized a lot more than just their hair.
Without spoilers, little about the second or slim third sections can be revealed. Comeuppance is delivered to those who deserve it — snobs, narcissists, sexual predators and bad actors (pun intended) — both by the plot and by an originally minor character who has a lot of new information to reveal. And a gun.
Like "Asymmetry," this is a book you will very much want to discuss with other readers.
If books were people, Ann Beattie's "A Wonderful Stroke of Luck" (Viking, 274 pp., $25) would be a friend that has dazzled you for years with her sharp observations and dry wit — so you try hard to find something to enjoy in this shapeless story she now seems set on telling. Beattie's 21st novel also begins in high school, this one a boarding school in New England called Bailey Academy. A campus celebrity professor named Pierre LaVerdere hand-picks a coterie of students —"LaVerdere's Leading Lights, a.k.a. The Honor Society" — for extracurricular instruction in the art of intellectual badinage.
Though LaVerdere's star power is invisible to the reader and the art of conversation he promotes hard to appreciate, the students are still talking about him years later, as the novel tracks them into early adulthood. As a non-Bailey friend comments, listening to yet another LaVerdere reference, "After all I've heard about this guy, I still never find him a million laughs."
There is not a shred of dramatic tension, despite guest appearances by 9/11 and AIDS, and Beattie just doesn't get her young millennials right. They talk about John Belushi and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." Phones and screens play an unrealistically small role in their lives. Even their anomie is off-key. If you want to read about this generation, there are writers like Ottessa Moshfegh, Elif Batuman, Rachel Khong and Nick Drnaso ready and waiting.
It seems certain that Beattie could write a better book if she focused on her own cohort, the people she spent most of her career observing. She knew exactly what she was talking about it, and she said it in a way we had not heard before. I would love to hear what she thinks of us now.