I don’t actually remember why I decided to request The Best Kind Of People from Net Galley. It may be that I heard about the book during some blog hopping. The premise is definitely intriguing – with a scandal at the heart of a small and close-knit community tearing the family it affects apart.
It was my first read by Zoe Whittall – she has two other novels whose names sound familiar – Bottle Rocket Hearts and Holding Still For As Long As Possible – but I’ve read neither. If you have, leave me a comment to let me know which one you think I might want to read next.
Overall, I liked Whittall’s writing style in The Best Kind Of People and the care she put into character development. However, there were some elements of the book that I found lacking, due to which I gave it 3 stars. I was a bit undecided between 3 or 4, so you can call it 3.5 if you’d like. Continue reading for my full review!
The Best Kind Of People by Zoe Whittall
Publication Date: August 27th 2016
Publisher: House Of Anansi Pr and Ballantine Books
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
George Woodbury, a celebrated teacher, is arrested for sexual impropriety at a prestigious prep school. His wife, Joan, vaults between denial and rage as the community she loved turns on her. Their daughter, Sadie, a popular over-achieving high school senior, becomes a social pariah. Their son, Andrew, assists in his father’s defense, while grappling with his own unhappy memories of his teen years. A local author tries to exploit their story, while an unlikely men’s rights activist attempts to get Sadie onside their cause. With George locked up, how do the members of his family pick up the pieces and keep on with their lives? How do they defend someone they love while wrestling with the possibility of his guilt?
With exquisite emotional precision, award-winning author Zoe Whittall explores the irrevocable damage of an accusation—not on the man accused, but on the family who have built their lives around him.
What I Liked
The family dynamics. This was the part of the novel that felt most successful to me. Once George Woodbury’s family finds out that he is being accused of sexual impropriety towards minors, they’re left to deal with the consequences of his arrest in his absence. The three primary characters in the novel are George’s wife Joan, his daughter Sadie and his son Andrew, as the navigate their new lives post-accusations. I think Whittall really excelled in revealing the conflicting thoughts of her three main characters as the weeks and months pass in her narrative. Joan is shown vacillating between doubting and believing her husband, anger and despair. Sadie struggles to continue to relate normally to her boyfriend, her mother and her friends (some of whom have families directly affected by the trial). And Andrew shuts off from those around him and takes on the role of protector and organizer amid the chaos. Their different reactions to these new revelations in their lives felt very realistic and relatable, and the reader can see the main characters adapting and changing throughout the narrative.
The portrayal of the community. Another aspect of the novel that was depicted very realistically was the community and society’s response to the accusations against Woodbury. From the initial hysteria, the associated guilt with which his family are treated by some in the community and the assault by the media, the reactions of those who were not close to the family felt true to what you’d expect from mob behavior in this kind of scenario. The people closest to the Woodbury family also had predictable and realistic receptions of allegations against George, from those who awkwardly rallied around the family – wanting to help but not being sure of what to say – to those who suddenly treated them coldly or jumped to conclusions about George’s actions. I felt that Whittall did a great job of providing a spectrum of the different ways in which people might respond to this kind of situation, both through her primary characters and through the various secondary ones that made up their closest circle of friends and the larger community.
What I Didn’t Like
Not much of a plot. Unfortunately, where the novel comes through in character development, it’s sorely lacking in plot. After the initial shock and action of George’s denouncement and arrest, the remainder of the novel has barely any real plot to speak of. There are small developments in George’s prosecution, a few visits between him and the family, a few changes in Joan and Sadie’s life, but the majority of the novel is really a character study. I felt that Whittall could have integrated more of an actual plot structure and twists within the book. There’s a bit of a secondary storyline involving Sadie and the family of her boyfriend, but I actually felt that this secondary storyline fell a bit flat, because it required Sadie to react in a way which didn’t feel believable for her age or he personality. You’ll have to let me know if you agree once you read the book. I wasn’t looking for the usual thriller with a huge and unexpected twist at every corner, but just a bit more about actual changes in the primary characters’ lives due to these unexpected events.
George Woodbury is left largely out of the narrative. One aspect of the novel which I felt definitely could have been developed more was that of George’s character. After he’s whisked off by policy, we really only get secondary glimpses into George’s actions, words and experiences following his arrest. I would have liked to learn more about what George himself was thinking about the accusations leveled against him, but Whittall doesn’t give the reader access to his thoughts. I kind of understood Whittall’s choice to leave Woodbury nearly completely out of the narrative, because it allows her to build the suspense on whether he is actually guilty or not. I think the author could have accomplished both goals though. She could have portrayed George’s own thoughts as conflicted and doubting, unsure of whether anything he did actually justified his arrest. As much as Joan and Sadie’s experience of their new circumstances was interesting to read about, I feel the reader never gets a good sense of George’s character, and even more so considering the ending (no spoilers).
Intriguing premise and very interesting character study of people caught in a scandal affecting their own family, but lacked important elements including sufficient plot evolution.
About The Author (from her website)
Born in South Durham, Quebec in 1976, she has lived in Toronto since 1997. She attended Dawson College New School and Concordia University in Montreal, and received her MFA from the University of Guelph in 2009. Her fourth novel, The Best Kind of People, was published in Fall 2016 with House of Anansi Press. She is the author of two other literary novels, Bottle Rocket Hearts (2007, Cormorant Books) and Holding Still for as Long as Possible (House of Anansi, 2009/10), a short novella for adults with low literacy skills called The Middle Ground (Orca, 2012), and three collections of poetry, Precordial Thump (Exile, 2008), The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare, 2006), and The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (McGilligan, 2001). In 2003 she edited the short fiction anthology Geeks, Misfits, & Outlaws.
Holding Still for as Long as Possible (2010) won the Lambda Literary Award for Trans Fiction, was a Stonewall Book Award Honor Book, and was shortlisted for the ReLit Award. Bottle Rocket Hearts (2007) won The Writer’s Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie grant, and was selected as one of CBC’s Canada Reads Top 10 Most Important Books of the Decade, and named a Best Book of the Year by The Globe & Mail.
Have you read The Best Kind Of People? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for political memoir What Happened by Hillary Clinton, the audiobook of contemporary fiction title Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, biography Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words by Andrew Morton, political memoir Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco, audiobook of historical fiction novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and historical crime mystery Death Of A Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel.
Thank you to the publisher and Net Galley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository.