The novel opens with Sadie Woodbury, elementary school student, finding herself face-to-face with a would-be school shooter. Sadie (and, presumably, the entire school or at least the secretary the shooter came to kill) is saved by teacher George Woodbury, also her own father.
This is a rather heavy-handed way of letting the reader know how and why George Woodbury is such a beloved teacher and member of his community. Fortunately, the story improves from here.
Years later, George is still beloved. He wins Teacher of the Year every year. His wife Joan is an ER nurse. His was one of the founding families of their lakeside community and George teaches out of sheer love, rather than any financial need. Their eldest child, Andrew, lives in New York where he’s a lawyer. Sadie is now a high school senior, smart, beautiful, athletic. The Woodburys and their friends are the definition of WASPs and seem to have it all.
Then George is arrested, accused of sexual misconduct and attempted rape of multiple young girls while on a school ski trip. He swears to his own innocence, claiming someone is out to get him. The school and the town take sides and the Woodbury’s are left in the middle, missing their father and husband with their own doubts ever increasing.
The story moves between the perspectives of Joan, Andrew, and Sadie, focusing mostly on Joan and Sadie, as the two women left to deal with the day-to-day fallout in their community. They each love George and desperately want him to be innocent, while also acknowledging that most rape allegations are true. Joan begins to wonder just how well she knows her husband as other things he’s hidden from her come to light. Sadie falls prey to a local author who wants to write a book about the crime and her whole future seems to crumble as she is ostracized by her friends and peers.
Overall the story is well-balanced and well-told. It’s an emotional tale told without sentimentality. Whittall delicately examines how the Woodbury family is left bereft but without the right to grieve the loss of George (as he’s in prison awaiting trail) because what if he’s guilty. I will say that I thought his family began to doubt him more quickly than seemed realistic. I would call myself a feminist who wants to support victims of sexual assault and believes the system is deeply flawed when these women do come forward to name their attackers. Yet, if a man I loved dearly and felt I know well (my husband, my brother, my father) was accused of a crime like this I just don’t think I would believe it unless confronted with cold, hard evidence. That may not be unfair and hypocritical but I think it’s also human nature and so I was surprised at how quickly doubt crept in for Joan and Sadie. I would have found it more believable for these changes in attitude to come slowly as the novel progressed.
The character of Andrew – the one who hated their community and has happily left it – provided a nice alternate perspective and cast some light on how life amongst the Woodburys might not be so perfect for everybody. There was a side plot about Andrew’s own high school relationship with a teacher that I didn’t feel added much and made Andrew seem pretty ignorant about how the world works.
The ending is sadly realistic and, I thought, particularly well-done. I know some readers have really disliked it but I thought it was truthful both to how the real world can be and to who the characters were.