(Audio)Book Talk: THE HEADMASTER’S WIFE, by Thomas Christopher Greene

Audiobook read by Kevin T. Collins, Tavia Gilbert, and Stephen Hoye
Thomas Dunne Books (February 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 1250038944 / 9781250038944)
Fiction, 288 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Audible Studios, February 2014; ASIN B00IMNIZK4)
I decided to read Thomas Christopher Greene’s The Headmaster’s Wife because of solid recommendations from trusted bloggers and a lifelong weakness for boarding-school stories with New England settings, despite some misgivings that it might have some elements that cut a little too close for my taste. I chose it on audio because that would allow me to get to it sooner, and because after spending the better part of a month listening to the history of nearly everything, I wanted a book that would go quickly. This novel definitely met that last qualification; I finished listening to it in under a week, during a week when I wasn’t making my daily eighty-mile round-trip commute.
Several reviews have suggested that this is a book that is best read without too much advance knowledge of the story, and so I will try not to tell much more than what’s revealed in the publisher’s description quoted below. However, I’ll share a few bullet-point observations:
  • The novel’s structure is critical to its effect and its effectiveness (which are not precisely the same thing). It’s divided into four sections–long, short, long, short,with each section taking a different narrative voice. The first of the short sections confirms something that the reader may have come to suspect during the first long one. The third section reimagines and reshapes the first.
  • I was increasingly uncomfortable with the depiction of events in the first section until I decided that I was dealing with an unreliable narrator…and at that point, I actually became more invested in the story.
  • Greene’s strength as a writer here seems to lie in evoking atmosphere: in the vividly described New England settings; in the turbulent, wracked emotional lives of his characters; and in the tension that quickly sets in and propels the reader through the narrative. The Headmaster’s Wife could be classified as mystery, but that’s more due to the way it unfolds than strictly on the basis of plot.
I was taken aback at first to realize that the audiobook version of The Headmaster’s Wife has three readers–none of whom I’ve encountered before–but as the novel’s structure emerges, the reason for this becomes clear, and while I’m still not sure it was entirelynecessary, it definitely works.
It sounds contradictory, but nearly everything I read about The Headmaster’s Wife before I read the book itself had me prepared to be surprised. And I was–perhaps not so much by the story itself, but by the way it was told and the effect it had on me. I’ll join the chorus on this one and suggest that you let it surprise you, too.
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Rating: Book, 4 of 5; Audio, 3.75 of 5

Inspired by a personal loss, Thomas Christopher Greene explores the way that tragedy and time assail one man’s memories of his life and loves. 

Like his father before him, Arthur Winthrop is the Headmaster of Vermont’s elite Lancaster School. It is the place he feels has given him his life, but is also the site of his undoing as events spiral out of his control. Found wandering naked in Central Park, he begins to tell his story to the police, but his memories collide into one another, and the true nature of things, a narrative of love, of marriage, of family and of a tragedy Arthur does not know how to address emerges. Luminous and atmospheric, bringing to life the tight-knit enclave of a quintessential New England boarding school, the novel is part mystery, part love story and an exploration of the ties of place and family. Beautifully written and compulsively readable, The Headmaster’s Wife stands as a moving elegy to the power of love as an antidote to grief.

Opening Lines:

“He arrives at the park by walking down Central Park West and then entering through the opening at West Seventy-seventh Street. This is in the winter. It is early morning, and the sun is little more than an orangey haze behind heavy clouds in the east. Light snow flurries fill the air. There are not many people out, a few runners and women bundled against the cold pushing strollers. 

“He walks down the asphalt drive and when he reaches a path with a small wooden footbridge he stops for a moment, and it is there somewhere, a snatch of memory, but he cannot reach it. An elderly couple comes toward him, out for their morning walk. The man gives him a hearty good morning but he looks right through him. What is it he remembers? It is something beautiful, he is sure of it, but it eludes him like so many things seem to do nowadays. 

“If he could access it, what he would see was a day twenty years earlier, in this same spot.”

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