Every time I read a book set in a high school I am amazed that anyone got out alive. High school wasn’t the best years of my life or anything, but compared to the murderous hatred factories everyone in fiction seems to attend, I clearly went to Merciful Paradise High. Or else I had my eyes shut throughout the entirety of my four years in high school. I do not rule this out as a (metaphorical) possibility.
The Rehearsal is about a girls’ school rocked by a teacher-student sex scandal, and a theatre school that makes the scandal the center of its end-of-year production. Characters use the shocking events to explore their own lives and to understand how grown-ups relate to each other.
As the title of the book implies, it’s a story about rehearsing: rehearsing a play, rehearsing sexuality, rehearsing in various roles for the sort of person you’re going to become. Over the first half of the book, you see the girls’ school students rehearsing different ways to frame the scandal in their lives, and in the second half, you see the theater students rehearsing how to frame it on a stage. The book sets up a number of quite elegant parallels and gets at something quite fundamental about adolescence: that thing that you are always doing of trying on personas to see if they’ll fit you, assuming you can discard them if they don’t, but then sometimes discovering you’re stuck with something you’ve tried because it’s all anyone can see of you now. This is done exceptionally well.
The Rehearsal is one of those books I admire but do not love. Eleanor Catton brilliantly portrays what she sets out to portray, the aforementioned trying-things-on aspect of adolescence. But there are a lot of things at the book that came off very contrived. Much of the dialogue was stilted and strange, and even when it was in the mouth of strange, stilted characters, it felt too fake even to be viable as words that someone fake would say.
The problem isn’t that people don’t talk that way, although they don’t; it’s that most of the characters spend most of their time talking like normal people. When someone starts talking out loud to someone else about notes burning into them like acid holes, it’s jarring that their interlocutor doesn’t say, “You talk weird, ya weirdo”. Do whatever you want with dialogue but either make it consistent or hang a lampshade on its inconsistency. Characters I wanted to believe in would say things like notes burn into them like acid holes, and abruptly they would feel like paper dolls instead of people. I wanted the characters to have an emotional foundation, but all they seemed to have was more and more personas to try on. No there there, as they say.
To steal a phrase from Simon (though he used it about Helen Oyeyemi and was — forgive me — totally wrong), too experimental for her boots!
Other reviews are here.