The opening of Thomas Christopher Greene’s fourth novel features a Vermont prep school headmaster shedding his clothes as he walks through Central Park. Soon he’s naked. The headmaster, it seems, is besotted with love — and lust — for a female student. This obsession makes him part of a grand literary tradition (“Wuthering Heights,” “Death in Venice”), a link underscored by his class in Russian literature. But literary overtones notwithstanding, Greene’s plot has the tight, relentless pacing of a fine detective novel, and that’s apt because “The Headmaster’s Wife” is also a mystery, framed by a police interrogation.
The first section, “Acrimony,” is narrated from the perspective of Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of the Lancaster School, an institution devoted to tradition. The second section, “Expectations,” is told through the eyes of his wife, Elizabeth . She provides the outsider’s vision.
A reader blitzing through this story of a middle-aged man meeting his downfall in the form of a pretty and exceedingly intelligent young woman feels at first a pleasurable combination of moral superiority and mild titillation. But is this simply another tale of an aging man’s grab for youth and sex, or does Arthur’s past have something to do with that naked stroll? Flashbacks show us Arthur and Elizabeth as students at Lancaster. Their memories are suffused with adolescent romance, but also with menace and New England privilege. The vibe is Prep School Gothic.
The headmaster thinks, “It is an ancient lust that roils inside me,” but he also puts it more simply: “I am crazy with lust.” He’s keenly aware that his position requires impeccable behavior. Although as headmaster he is a servant to the wealthy, his proximity also gives him access to money and power. When he brings his favorite student to the Central Park West apartment of a trustee, they open the French doors, stand on the balcony and look “down to the small people striding briskly below.”
The novel’s “small people” might include both this student of modest means and the headmaster’s wife, who was once a scholarship girl herself. At Lancaster, both young women experience relief at having their intelligence recognized, and both are drawn to the traditions of prep school life, even as they remain wary. Elizabeth reflects that “she shed her skin when she first came to Lancaster.” She belonged to the era when the first female students went on to Seven Sister colleges and were summoned to mixers at Harvard and Yale. She remembers “the feeling of being on parade for privileged boys, their eyes on her, sizing her up in the narrowest of ways, as if they, these Wellesley women, are little more than what they suggest in their blouses and skirts.”
The novel is also deeply concerned with how class and privilege affect young men’s assigned roles: The headmaster’s son, inflamed by the attack on the World Trade Center, impetuously enlists in the Army — something the men in this family simply don’t do. His father is enraged and bewildered. The son’s decision has perhaps somehow precipitated the headmaster’s lust, but Greene cleverly subsumes the headmaster’s political and parental anxieties into his far more primal state.
By the novel’s midpoint, when everything we’ve learned about this troubled family is called into question, the mood is mournful, but the unfolding mystery drives us compulsively on. Despite its forays into Elizabeth’s psychological perspective, the narrative remains effectively stripped-down, its tone as brisk as those of the police interrogators.
The resolution, “After,” is told through the eyes of a present-day assistant district attorney who once played a key role in the lives of Arthur and his wife. In classical fashion, this final section relieves the tension of the story’s climax and ties everything neatly together — perhaps too neatly. But for Prep School Gothic, we’ll make allowances. Besides, the D.A.’s an exceedingly sympathetic fellow.
A moving postscript explains how an event in Greene’s life affected both the trajectory and the intensity of this novel, but at that point, most readers will already have intuited a displacement of unbearable emotions. Just as a scholarship girl might shed the skin of her limited-means origins, so a man walking through Central Park naked must be shedding some heavy emotional disguises. Although “The Headmaster’s Wife” may not, finally, go quite as deep as those Russian novels it invokes, it is deeply felt, nevertheless, and utterly absorbing.
Sayers, chair of the English Department at Notre Dame, is the author of six novels including “The Powers.”
THE HEADMASTER’S WIFE
By Thomas Christopher Greene
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 277 pp. $24.99