The Rehearsal Paperback – Mar 15 2011
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Quill & Quire
The plot is conventionally provocative: in the aftermath of a high school sex scandal, a group of teenage girls become aware of their own power. However, in The Rehearsal, the first novel by Canadian-born, New Zealand-raised Eleanor Catton, the plot is not the point.
Throughout the novel, Catton obscures the line between reality and fantasy. A group of drama students decide to use the recent sex scandal as fodder for their end-of-year production. The novel’s chapters alternate between the drama students’ points of view and those of a group of girls loosely connected to the scandal, but it’s never entirely clear whether the latter scenes are actual events or merely the students’ re-enactments of them. Stanley, a student at the drama school, begins an affair with Isolde, whose sister is the central figure in the scandal. Stanley and Isolde are not so much characters as performers, even in their most intimate moments. As they begin to bizarrely recreate the events of the scandal, their actions and reactions are informed by movies and TV.
But does any of this actually happen, or are Stanley and Isolde merely performers? The novel, which resembles a kind of literary hall of mirrors, suggests that such distinctions are unimportant, that genuine emotion is impossible, and that even the most convincing performances are only copies of copies of reality. The characters in The Rehearsal are soulless, their speech is overwrought and scripted, and the heart of the novel remains elusive.
Though often frustrating, The Rehearsal is nevertheless a fascinating puzzle. Catton depicts the politics of teenage girls with acuity, satirizes our contemporary culture of public grief, and pushes the limits of the novel’s form.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"A wonderful debut by a truly exciting new writer — The Rehearsal is compulsively good and while at the same time being immensely readable it also continually calls into question the relationship between so-called 'reality' and fiction, and the very nature of truth itself."
— Kate Atkinson
"This astonishing debut novel from Eleanor Catton is a cause for surprise and celebration: smart, playful and self-possessed, it has the glitter and mystery of the true literary original."
— The Guardian
"Eleanor Catton has not only shaken the bars but broken through."
— Glasgow Sunday Herald
"A book as brainy as The Rehearsal usually doesn’t have the emotional heft to match its smarts. But New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s debut novel – I can’t believe it’s her first book – will make you gasp, think, laugh, wonder and then weep. . . . I haven’t been this impressed with a debut fiction writer since Ann-Marie MacDonald released Fall On Your Knees. This year’s must-read."
— NOW magazine (5 "N" review)
“A bravura performance. . . . As wickedly provocative as it is elaborately crafted. . . . [A] sensational novel. There is nothing ordinary about it.”
— Toronto Star
“Imagine Sue Sylvester’s lines from ‘Glee’ delivered by Judi Dench and you’ll begin to capture the tone taken by the teachers in this mordant debut novel.”
— New York Times
“The Rehearsal is something completely different. It’s almost impossible to classify. The closest comparison might be Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, or even The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, but The Rehearsal stands alone. . . . Eleanor Catton has begun on a very high note. I have a feeling she’ll sustain it.”
— Globe and Mail
“A tour de force. . . . The combination of beautiful writing and inventive, nontraditional structure . . . make it a dazzling debut.”
— Booklist (starred review)
From the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Plenty of people love this book; there is no denying it is very well written, ultimately though its lack of credibility and coherence was distracting and annoying. I suspect the extent to which a reader might enjoy this book would largely depend on his or her tolerance for ambiguity.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
We meet Victoria and Isolde, two sisters who attend a private girls school, Abbey Grange. A short distance away is the Drama Institute. These two establishments collide when an affair between Victoria and her teacher, Mr. Saladin, comes to light. The Drama Institute takes on this scandal and works it into their year-end performance production.
The book deals with the reactions of students to the shocking affair between Victoria and Mr. Saladin. Many of the students share their thoughts with the saxophone teacher who tutors many of them. The saxophone teacher, in my humble opinion, was the most outstanding character in this book. Her dry and witty humor, outspoken remarks, her almost cruel conversations and observations were simply hilarious and made her very life-like and believable.
As for the other characters, they seemed almost cardboard in comparison to the saxophone tutor who stole the entire show -- for me.
The book takes place within a year's time. The chapters read quickly and are headed by days of the week and/or month. The book revolves around the students reactions, thoughts, and the consequences of the affair.
Ms. Catton was in her early 20's when she wrote this book, which was written as her master's thesis for creative writing! This book was honored by being shortlisted for the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. Ms. Catton's writing skills have much to offer to the literary world.
This book is well written and reads in a very different and interesting fashion. Real life and the drama of the theater clash together. However, this book was hard for me to read and I felt as if I were plodding through. I wanted to enjoy it much more than I did, but it just wasn't my cuppa.
The basis for the story is a scandal at a school involving a music teacher, Mr Saladin, and Victoria, the elder sister of one of the main characters, Isolde. This impact of this event is viewed both from the point of view of the girls at the school, and also as the basis for an end of year drama production by the local drama Institute. The two stories start separately, but inevitably mesh as the book progresses. The drama school bit is arguably a bit of a stretched conceit, but this is forgivable as the author explores the concepts of reality and performance. But this is just one of the aspects of this book.
Was the errant Mr Saladin any worse than the dark and mysterious "saxophone teacher" whose attempts to control and interfere with her charges appears at times more sinister than Mr Saladin's sexual urges. But her habit of speaking exactly what she thinks is hilarious at times. And the author's psychological insights into the fears of teenagers growing up are beautifully observed. And how does the media (in this case a play) reflect reality - and does reality exist - and how much of it is performance (as Shakespeare once noted), and so much more....
There's dark humour aplenty mixed with the fears and excitement of growing up. It is a very difficult book to describe - the voices sound real in an unreal way. The closest I can get to explaining it is a line given by the Head of Acting at the drama Institute who likens plays to the ancient Greek god statues - they are not meant to be representative but they allow you a point of access that seems real. If that sounds pretentious mumbo-jumbo, that is what makes this book so excellent - it is such a complex tapestry of a story that it could easily have come over as pseudo-high brow and pretentious, but it doesn't largely because it's told with humour and sympathy. The characters, while not all likeable, are all easy to sympathise with and all are clearly drawn. It's not an easy book to start, but after ten pages, I was hooked and it's the kind of book that you can re-read and get more out of. And the more you read, the more it rings in your head, like a piece of classical music the phrases and stories are inter-woven.
I can see why some will hate this book (there is little in the way of direct narrative, the time scenes jump around, and some of the voices are far from naturalistic, and the ending is a little anti-climactic), but it is one of the most innovative and intricate books I've read in a long while and as a first novel it is astonishingly adept. I will be recommending this book to everyone.
The story takes place between three neighboring groups of students. The Drama Institute is a drama college for aspiring actors, and the girls' high school, Abbey Grange, is an elite private school. The music school rounds out the settings of this novel. The sax teacher, a female of unknown identity, is often seen in shadow or startling light. Speaking of identity, only first or last names are identified, all except for one replacement teacher, Jean Critchley, who came on board when music teacher Mr. Saladin was let go. He had a scandalous affair with Victoria, one of the girls from Abbey Grange. This affair is the centerpiece story, from which all other stories, themes, and actions unfold. The abbreviated names personify the characters and their motivations in shadow for much of the story.
This is a cloistered world where arch teenagers say cruel things to each other and communicate through a pecking order. The most genetically sparkling are the most popular, and deviance is not tolerated (although desired). Reality is less authentic than truth, insist the acting teachers. Truth is uncovered and dislodged via a staged experience. The Theater of Cruelty is an exercise taught to first year drama students that both perverts and illuminates the human boundaries and boundlessness of ambition and fear.
The sax teacher speaks with a frank and flinty tongue to intrusive stage mothers and manipulates her students into shocking reenactments of her own past desires. Julia, (earmarked as the deviant ) and Isolde, (the beloved and in vogue), two of her students from the high school, feel caged by their status. Additionally, the students envy Isolde's sister, Victoria, because she was desired by an adult. She is now a celebrated victim. The sax teacher taps into their confusion and pulls their emotional strings, inwardly avid as they puppet her predilections.
The acting teachers, known mainly as The Head of Acting and The Head of Movement, seek out favorite students who are reinventions of their past selves. Stanley is an earnest first-year student looking for his niche and willing to do audacious things to shed his virginal skin and experience the adult and sophisticated world. As reality is eclipsed by truth, the core of human behaviors--shame, fear, love, hate, and ambition--are played out with glee and gloom on a stage of human experience.
As a former and very amateur stage actress, I was fortunate to take acting classes with strong teachers that taught me techniques from various schools of thought. It allowed me to identify that this novel did a masterful job of conveying the philosophies and approaches to acting that are taught by places such as the Berghof Studio, the Stella Adler Academy, and the Method school of acting. Catton, raised in New Zealand, was twenty-two when she wrote this impeccably researched book. She explored and exploited the stage experience with a witty and subversive precision. Moreover, she told a story about human nature, about pretending and escaping your limitations, about navigating through the quagmire of human desires--to find truth though lies.
The catalyst for the girls is a saxophone teacher to whom many of them go for private lessons. This unnamed woman has a gloriously irreverent voice, saying to one of the mothers, for example: "I require of all my students that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardor and uncertainty and gloom." Or perhaps thinking this rather than saying it; one of the glories of the book is that everybody seems to be on a truth serum, coming out with thoughts that would probably never be spoken in public. Or seeing through a lie to the truth behind it, as when a woman talks about her husband: "I'll be thinking how he really is getting rather fat, and then I'll feel guilty for thinking such an ungenerous thought, so I'll panic and blurt out, I love you. I'm always motivated by the oddest things."
Early in the book, there is a scandal at Abbey Grange. The band teacher, Mr. Saladin, is accused of abusing a pupil and forced to resign. Group counseling sessions are arranged for all those closest to the perhaps-willing victim. The counselor talks of harassment as a form of control, but one girl objects: "I don't agree that Mr. Saladin wanted to gain control. Sleeping with a minor isn't exciting because you get to boss them around. It's exciting because you're risking so much... because you might lose." This sensible but subversive viewpoint is typical of the book as a whole, almost every page of which manages to turn received wisdom on its head, whether in outrageous contradiction or gentle parody. As an example of the latter, here is the younger sister of the abused girl telling the sax teacher what she learned in counseling: "We learned that you can only feel one thing at one time. You can feel excitement or you can feel fear but you can never feel both. We learned why beauty is so important: beauty is important because you can't really defile something that is already ugly, and to defile is the ultimate goal of the sexual impulse. We learned that you can always say no." The truth of the last sentence does little to excuse the well-intentioned psychic time-bombs that precede it.
I have to admit that this book might almost have been written for me. As an opera director, I teach acting to musicians not so very much older than the people in this novel. While the saxophone lessons are a surreal vehicle for many things besides music, the early chapters at the drama school contain some of the most insightful descriptions of the acting process that I have ever read, so much so that I am seriously considering making the book required reading for my students. Although they at first seem irrelevant to the developing plot, their fine parsing of truth and illusion gives us a tool with which to look more closely at the young people discovering their own capacities for friendship, trust, and love. As the saxophone teacher tells another parent, elucidating the title, "Remember that these years of your daughter's life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after." Then she adds, with characteristically subversive honesty: "Remember that it's in her best interests to slip up now, while she's still safe." And the slips we certainly get!
In her speech to parents before her students' annual recital, the saxophone teacher virtually sums up the theme of the book. "There are people who can only see the roles we play, and there are people who can only see the actors pretending. But it is a very rare and strange thing that a person has the power to see both at once; this kind of double vision is a gift." It is this gift that Eleanor Catton, with x-ray insight, offers so entertainingly to her readers.
The Rehearsal is set primarily in a Drama School of the `break the person down in order to get at their truth' variety, and also in a girls' school, particularly amongst a group of girls who are learning to be saxophonists.
It is the story of a sexual relationship between a fifteen year old girl and her male teacher, and how that story sets off reverberations within her family, her peers and the wider community of the two schools. The taboo relationship between the girl and the teacher is then gets used to explore sexuality, overt and covert, power, youth and age, seduction and who seduces and who is seduced, and how, sexual games and the whole cannibalistic, voyeuristic nature of performance.
As the `true' story of the girl and her teacher gets used as the springboard for a play, performed by a group of First Year Drama Students, the wheels within wheels nature of this book, the simultaneous stories jumping backwards and forwards, dizzyingly, between the girls' school, their saxophone lessons (and all the cultural accretion that instrument holds) and the drama school, becomes more and more tangled, more and more illusion within illusion. Catton constructs a house of deliberate artifice, a mind game between writer and reader
Catton is a remarkably clever writer, she is a conceptual writer, like a conceptual artist. A writer about, a writer who comments on the illusion of art, performance, writing itself. A writer who comments on the fact that we are all illusionists, mask wearers, performance artists.
Reading her work though I have that uneasy sense that conceptual art itself often brings me, where found objects, or objects and images which are generated by software writing, computer generated, fulfil one of the major functions of art - to make us notice - but lack some indefinable, energetic quality of the soulfulness, heartfulness in the direct transmission of the artist themselves creating something into being through the craft of their hands getting down and dirty and fine with brush, pen, colour mixing.
To put it another way - bread made in a bread machine - or something extra in bread made by hand.
What has this to do with Catton, who after all created the words, the idea, the story. And skilfully too? Somehow, as a reader, I found myself at a remove from her creation. Admiring of her craft, pondering the cleverness of plays within plays, characters playing characters, a veritable series of carefully crafted interlocking Chinese boxes. But what for me was lacking, despite her very very accurate unpicking of adolescent insecurity, that time above all else of the trying on of masks to see which one is the best fitting to grow into, was the sense of the real, visceral nature of her characters.
In a novel about performance, should there not be moments when suddenly one `comes real'? Despite the fact that I guess we all have a director in our heads, an observer of ourselves, we all, also, have moments when we are properly present, properly within ourselves, being. There is perhaps a little too much unremitting self-consciousness here.
Cool intelligence, clear observation, wit, invention, but no sense (for this reader) of Catton engaging inside the turbulent blood, guts, heart and viscera of her characters. Because I could not sense the writer being inside the feeling other, but only had the sense as of a clinical psychologist professionally disengaged, I, too, was not taken inside suffering or ecstatic humanity. An interesting mind game (there is a more earthy description!) but I stayed within my own cool head, ultimately disengaged from connection,
For this reader, MUCH to admire; little to warm-heartedly love. I recommend whole-headedly this from my Inner Cool Sophisticate, to yours. But if what you want from writing is that `only connect' that transcends the tiny individual and gives that sense of expanded horizon, that greater understanding `felt in the blood and felt along the heart', this is not that.