It seem as though I’ve been on a string of reading really good books lately, and of course this Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee was no different. The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall has alot of hype surrounding it, and I totally understand/want to perpetuate this hype. It has a unique premise, engrossing characters, and a well designed plot. Would I go so far as to predict it will win the Giller? Perhaps, but that’s because I’ve only read one other book that’s nominated, and Whittall’s offering is better.
The story begins with a dramatic attempt at a school shooting that is thwarted by a well-respected teacher in a Waspy community in Connecticut. In fact, the gunman is about to shoot at this teacher’s daughter, and as she stands there stunned her father George Woodbury tackles this deranged man to the floor. Flash forward to when this girl is a teenager about to graduate high school, and her father is once again in the spotlight, but this time he’s been accused of sexual impropriety with girls he teaches. To many readers’ surprise, the novel centers on the experiences of his family, not George himself. In fact, we never hear from George directly, only through other people’s eyes do we catch up with him.
Rape culture and sexual assault cases have been in the news quite a bit lately, which is why this book is so interesting to people in the first place. It’s a topic that many are quite polarized on, and of course, this book doesn’t offer us any answers, as it’s impossible to do that with a subject such as this. However, Whittall offers us a glimpse into the lives of people that are so easily ignored in the attention grabbing world of headlines: the loved ones of those who are accused (or commit) these heinous crimes. And even more interesting is the spotlight she shines on those who are trying to support George’s family members. For instance, the boyfriend of George’s son is doing all he can to help Andrew through the months leading up to the trial, but the mixed emotions that arise with a father accused of a serious crime such as this seem to seep into all aspects of their relationship. George’s daughter Sadie is caught in a wretched position too, because one of her best friend’s little sisters is one of the accusers of George. As you can probably tell already, this is a juicy book just brimming with small-town gossip.
My favourite part of the novel is the hilarious (but sadly realistic) depiction of the crazy, right-wing group that comes out in support of George, blaming young women’s clothes and actions for the crimes against them. They create stickers that read “Cry Rape and Ruin a Man’s Life” and other absurd sayings, and they even try to convince some of the young women who came forward to back down and recant their statements. I laughed at some of the scenes they were written in to, but these parts also made me feel uncomfortable, simply because I know there are actually people out there that believe those things. In fact I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having to sit through similar ridiculous rants in real life! One night when I was living in Kingston, I was being ferried downtown by a cab driver and he decided I was the perfect audience to espouse his opinions to. In a drawn-out speech that took the entire 20 minute drive to complete, he told me in no uncertain terms that women are simply ‘asking for it’ based on what they wear out to bars.
Personal beliefs aside, this is a fascinating and entertaining read. Gems like The Best Kind of People don’t come around often, so tune in to the Gillers on Monday night and buy this book regardless of the outcome.