Trust Exercise is ostensibly the story of artistic, talented high school students and the performing arts school where they all come together, Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA). We do not know exactly where the school is located, other than in a hot southern city. The group of students that is the focus of this story are not ordinary high schoolers, if there is such a thing. “They were all children who had previously failed to fit in, or had failed, to the point of acute misery, to feel satisfied, and they had seized on creative impulse in the hope of salvation.” This is the baseline for the story.
The story revolves around 15 year olds Sarah and David, whose romantic relationship is intense and strong…until it isn’t. And then the story focuses on the failure of that love affair. But there are so many other things going on. Mr. Kingsley, their gay beloved theater teacher has them engaging in a variety of trust exercises, including crawling along on the floor in the pitch dark (where maybe trust doesn’t work so well if you are a 15 year old girl), sitting in a circle and speaking the truth about each other, as well as more traditional trust exercises.
Sarah has a best friend Joelle and a distant friend Karen. As the story unfolds and Sarah (who is said to be very beautiful) is grieving over the loss of David, her friends distance themselves from her. There are other characters in the story with various talents both real and imagined.
Sarah has a close relationship with Mr. Kingsley and a distant relationship with her mother. Sarah works early mornings in a bakery to earn money to buy a car. Mr. Kingsley inexplicably calls Sarah’s mother and tells her that Sarah should not be working so hard. Sarah’s mother, whom Sarah treats horribly and who is actually quite sympathetic, agrees but is concerned about the teacher’s intrusion. Mr. Kingsley’s intrusion does not end there and his relationship with Sarah is quite puzzling. Suddenly, the relationship ends.
A significant part of the story involves a British performing troupe from a high school in Bournemouth that comes to visit and to perform what turns out to be a borderline pornographic version of Candide. The troupe includes two older men, one a teacher and the other a performer and a number of male and female students. The members of the troupe stay in the student’s homes and there are a lot of parties. Everyone seems to pair off for the visit including the two older men, with long term consequences.
The book is broken into three parts, each part bringing new meaning and perspective to the section before it. The last two parts deal with some of the characters many years after high school graduation. We learn what the first part of the book meant, how high school affected them and their ongoing heartbreaks and successes. The book is actually quite sobering about the long term impacts of high school life and sexual abuse from teachers and trusted advisors.
Despite the disturbing themes of the book, it is brilliantly conceived and written. It won the 2019 National Book Award and is an excellent, if not slightly dark, read. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.