The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall is a five-star book! It hooked me right away and it was definitely one that was hard to put down.
The book poses the question, “What if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable?” And then goes about trying to answer that question, beautifully displaying how difficult it can be to take a side.
The story follows an affluent, all-American family right as George, the father and town’s beloved teacher, is arrested for sexual assault and rape. This man is a gem in his small town, and not only wins the favourite teacher award every year, but years ago took down a mass gunman in the hallway of the prep school where he worked. And saved his his own daughter, who was down the hall. He’s a hero, a good guy, a great husband and amazing father.
But did he actually commit the crimes he’s accused of? Did the annual ski-trip, where students were known for drinking and getting out of hand; truly get that out of hand?
The story is told from his family’s point of view; Sadie, the brilliant 17-year-old daughter who still struggles in the aftermath of that almost-shooting; Andrew, the gay son who escaped the small town life and is a lawyer in the big city; and Joan, a nurse and the ever-doting wife.
We see how each of them handles the news and aftermath of the arrest, and learn to understand their take on rape culture and the way in which victims are treated. I have never read a book like this before.
It’s definitely not one-sided in its point of view, and really has a way of making you think about how rape culture is handled in today’s world and through the media; but most importantly through the impact it has on the accused’s family.
I think she portrayed each character beautifully, displaying their own faults and idiosyncrasies as well as the bond of a strong family. Andrew was quite possibly my favourite, as he struggles to face his past, while battling the future. His relationship with the town who denied him, the boyfriend who loves him and everything in between. He is a complex character, with sharp contrasts to his sister and mother.
Sadie, his younger sister, is thrown for a loop. Her world, while not perfect, was pretty close to it before this all happened. Her father was the town hero after all. He knew how to push Sadie to be the best. And then when she finds out he’s accused of the worst possible things, by girls she considered her friends, her world is thrown upside down. She is an outcast, and starts to focus on drugs. She refuses to see her father, but still speaks to him weekly on the phone. The image of her hero tarnished and she doesn’t know how to stop it.
It is the friendship that is forged between Kevin, her boyfriend’s step-father and Sadie that disturbed me a bit. Showing me just how vulnerable and gullible kids can be, and yet they think they are so smart. It was eerie the way he injected himself into her life, in a way that felt easy, and she wasn’t the wiser.
And then there’s Joan. The dutiful wife and mother, who is truly blindsided by the news. Could her perfect life really ever be whole again? Was it ever really perfect? The way Joan goes back and forth with her thoughts and feelings; the anger and sadness were authentic. Whittall has a way of making you feel for the character, but yet allows you to form your own opinions without banging you over the head.
The book is a bit uncomfortable to read, because it conjures up stories from real life that have been splayed across social media and in the news, and forces you to evaluate your opinion.
We never hear George’s side of the story, which leaves the reader feeling like Sadie, Andrew and Joan; in an abyss of doubt and confusion, wondering if he could be capable of such things. Could somebody so beloved and revered, also be so dark and calculating?
Whittall, who is Canadian (born in Quebec), now lives in Toronto. The Best Kind of People was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for 2016.
It is the first book I’ve read by this author, but I will be on the lookout for her other works.