Trust Exercise (Choi)

Trust Exercise 
Susan Choi, 2019
Henry Holt & Company
272 pp.

In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes.

When within this striving “Brotherhood of the Arts,” two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.

The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down.

What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true—though it’s not false, either. It takes until the book’s stunning coda for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place—revealing truths that will resonate long after the final sentence.

As captivating and tender as it is surprising, Susan Choi's Trust Exercise will incite heated conversations about fiction and truth, and about friendships and loyalties, and will leave readers with wiser understandings of the true capacities of adolescents and of the powers and responsibilities of adults. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—South Bend, Indiana, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; M.F.A., Cornell University
Awards—PEN/W.G. Sebald Award; Asian American Literary Award
Currently—lives in New York City (Brooklyn)

Susan Choi is an American novelist. She was born in South Bend, Indiana to a Korean father and the American daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. When she was nine years old, her parents divorced. She and her mother moved to Houston, Texas. Choi earned a B.A. in Literature from Yale University (1990) and an M.F.A. from Cornell University. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

After receiving her graduate degree, she worked for The New Yorker as a fact checker.

Choi won the Asian American Literary Award for Fiction and was a finalist of the Discover Great New Writers Award at Barnes & Noble for her first novel, The Foreign Student. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her historical fiction novel, American Woman. In 2010, she won the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award.

With David Remnick, she edited an anthology of short fiction entitled Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker. Choi's second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2009. My Education, her fourth, was published in 2013; her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, came out  in 2019. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 7/10/2013.)

Book Reviews
Choi's new novel, her fifth, is titled Trust Exercise, and it burns more brightly than anything she's yet written. This psychologically acute novel enlists your heart as well as your mind. Zing will go certain taut strings in your chest…Choi builds her novel carefully, but it is packed with wild moments of grace and fear and abandon. She catches the way certain nights, when you are in high school, seem to last for a month—long enough to sustain entire arcs of one's life.
Dwight Garner - New York Times

Choi’s voice blends an adolescent’s awe with an adult’s irony. It’s a letter-perfect satire of the special strain of egotism and obsession that can fester in academic settings.… [Choi is] a master of emotional pacing: the sudden revelation, the unexpected attack.… How cunningly this novel considers the way teenage sexuality is experienced, manipulated, and remembered.… The result is a dramatic exploration of the distorting forces of memory, envy, and art.… You won’t be disappointed.
Washington Post

Susan Choi’s thrilling new novel, Trust Exercise, is a rare and splendid literary creature: piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining, and so masterfully intricate that only after you finish it, stunned, can you step back and marvel at the full scope of its unshowy achievements.
Boston Globe

Immerses the reader in the suffocating hothouse atmosphere of a 1980s performing arts high school and all the intense drama, heartbreak, and scandal many remember from their teen years.
Los Angeles Times

In her masterful, twisty [novel], Susan Choi upgrades the familiar coming-of-age story with remarkable command… [displaying her] talent for taking ineffable emotions and giving them an oaken solidity.… So many books and films present teenage years as a passing phase, a hormonal storm that passes in time. Choi, in this witty and resonant novel, thinks of it more like an earthquake―a rupture that damages our internal foundations and can require years to repair.
USA Today

Book groups, meet your next selection.… Trust Exercise is fiction that contains multiple truths and lies. Working with such common material, Choi has produced something uncommonly thought-provoking.

A twisting feat of storytelling.… [Choi] uses language brilliantly.… She is an astute, forensic cartographer of human nature; her characters are both sympathetic and appalling. In the end, [Trust Exercise] is a tale of missed connection and manipulation―and of willing surrender to the lure and peril of the unknown.

An intelligent and layered portrait of a school’s legacy.… [Trust Exercise] makes something dramatic and memorable from the simple elements of a teen movie.
The New Yorker

Mind-bending.… A Gen-X bildungsroman that speaks to young generations, a Russian nesting doll of unreliable narrators, and a slippery #MeToo puzzle-box about the fallibility of memory.… [A] perfectly stitched together Frankenstein’s monster of narrative introspection and ambiguity.… It flexes its own meta-existence―as a novel about the manipulation inherent in any kind of narrative―brilliantly.
New York Magazine

Perhaps the best [novel] this year.… [Trust Exercise] begins as an enthralling tale of teenage romance and then turns into a meticulously plotted interrogation of the state of the novel itself.… Read it once for pleasure, and then again to turn up all the brilliant Easter eggs.

Electrifying.… [A] story that cuts to the heart of gender politics and the teacher-student dynamic.

A gonzo literary performance one could mistake for a magic trick, duping its readers with glee before leaving them impossibly moved.… Facts are debated in Trust Exercise, yes, but Choi always tells the truth.
Entertainment Weekly

(Starred review) Superb, powerful.… Choi’s themes—among them the long reverberations of adolescent experience, the complexities of consent and coercion, and the inherent unreliability of narratives—are timeless and resonant. Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.
Publishers Weekly

[N]either sentimentalizes nor trivializes the emotional lives of the teens.… [T]he first half of the novel feels "truer" than the more contrived… second half…. The latter retrospective approach serves best in examining the confusion and ambiguity of teenage sexuality and how that can be exploited. —Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
Library Journal

(Starred review) [Choi’s] finest novel.… Trust Exercise should immediately put readers on alert… exposing tenuous connections between fiction, truth, lies, and, of course, people. Literary deception rarely reads this well.

(Starred review) [A] story of obsessive first love… twists into something much darker in Choi's singular new novel.… The writing (exquisite) and the observations (cuttingly accurate) make Choi's latest both wrenching and one-of-a-kind. Never sentimental; always thrillingly alive.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for TRUST EXERCISE … then take off on your own:

1. Any one of these talking points could relate to your own life. As you consider each question with regards to Susan Choi's novel, also consider it in terms of your own experiences and what you recall of your adolescent years. Ask yourself how reliable your own memory is, and how others might remember those same events.

2. Start your discussion off with the central couple, Sarah and David. Talk about each as a character and the degree to which Choi enables us to get inside them, to know them. Also, talk about their love for one another. What is it that draws the couple together? Does their attachment feel true; is it deeply felt as, say, a more mature adult's?

3. Talk about Mr. Kingsley. In what ways does he overstep bounds? How does he use his students' own confusion and anxiety to bolster his lessons? Have you ever known teachers/professors like Kingsley?

4. Do the students have any concept of how transgressive, even dangerous, Kingsley's lessons are? How do they view these intimate dynamics?

5. Choi writes of "the excruciating in-betweenness of no longer being children, yet lacking those powers enjoyed by adults." How does her novel depict that line between adolescence and adulthood? In what ways is the line blurred and confusing, thrilling and dangerous?

6. What is the significance of the novel's title, Trust Exercise? Consider that each section of the novel uses the phrase as its title, focusing on a different set of betrayals. Is Choi's novel itself a "trust exercise"? Are all novels? (Now we're in the realm of meta fiction.)

7. At what point in the novel do you first begin to realize that perhaps you've misunderstood what you originally thought was happening?

8. Fast forward 15 years, to the second half of the novel. How have characters and their lives been altered?

9. Follow-up to Question 8: High school years, especially, can be transforming as well deforming, with the scars of betrayals and hurts carried forward, well into adulthood. What are the scars that Choi's characters bear (or perhaps bare)?

10. Related to Question 5: At one point, David talks with Sarah's old friend, recalling students who, they believe, slept with the director. David insists, "We knew what we were doing. Remember what we were like?" "We were children," Sarah's friend points out." But David retorts, "We were never children." What does he mean? How aware are teens to the issues of abuse? Should they know better—are they capable of knowing better?

11. How does the play in the second half reveal what actually happened in the first half?

12. Is Sarah's book betrayal, revenge, or is it art?

13. Discuss the ways in which Trust Exercise takes aim at a number of cultural issues, including the cult of the "Great Man" and the "Elite Brotherhood of the Arts." In what other ways is the book satirical?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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