Book Review: The Headmaster’s Wife
Thomas Christopher Greene
Thomas Dunne Books, 2014
The arresting visual at the beginning of Thomas Christopher Greene’s latest novel, a 57-year-old man walking calmly through Central Park in winter with no clothes on, grips the reader and propels The Headmaster’s Wife forward with completely confident ease. This is an hour’s read of an eminently enjoyable variety, a throwback to the best of Marquand and Auchincloss.
The man in the park is Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of the Lancaster School, an exclusive prep academy in Vermont where his father was headmaster before him (and where he’d like his son Ethan to headmaster after him, except that Ethan has joined the military and shipped out to the war in Iraq). When the police take Arthur Winthrop into custody and begin questioning him, a story comes pouring out of him, a story of wandering, comprehensive detail. Winthrop is a touchy, defensive character, full of doubt and self-recrimination, like when he reflects on his fund-raising efforts among the “well-heeled alumni” at the Lancaster Club in Manhattan:
I have been doing this a long time, you see, but sometimes I still feel like a fraud. I do not know if I really ever wanted to be head of school. I am not my father, and my son is not I. The older alums still compare me to my father, and I know they find me wanting. I am not starchy enough, perhaps, a pale imitation of the old man’s greatness.
The story he tells in the book’s first third is repulsively fascinating: he falls in love with an eighteen-year-old student named Betsy and instead of controlling himself gives himself entirely over to the process, trying clumsily to learn an entire alien vocabulary:
It dawns on me that the language of love, the very word, love, may not be the lingua franca of her generation. Maybe no one talks about love anymore, maybe there is some other language I am not privy to. Everything grows coarser over time, less subtle. There is no mysticism anymore. Perhaps love is too high-minded.
The police questioning Arthur Winthrop gently doubt the strength of any connection between somebody eighteen years old and somebody almost sixty, and the more adamant Winthrop is about it all, the more expertly Greene stirs those same doubts in the minds of his readers. Long before the naked man’s confession comes to its shattering conclusion (and ushers in the lightning-fast remainder of the novel, which takes its off-balance readers on a perfectly-modulated sprint from confusion to heartbreak), it’s obvious that a great deal more is going on than Winthrop either knows or is willing to admit. But for the main body of his narrative, there’s only the glowing self-delusion of a middle-aged man, a man who boils with jealousy at the mere memory of Betsy’s college-aged suitor Russell Hurley:
I am a teenager again. You think this door is closed to you. You think you will never feel the hurt of first love again, and then here it is, a kick to your groin so swift it takes your breath away. Now, I am not a violent man, but I will confess that I have some awful thoughts. I want Russell to disappear. I take that back – I only want Betsy, the promise of what we started that night in the hotel room. I want to make love to her again, to taste her skin on my tongue, to feel the warmth of her breath, her mouth.
The wrong Winthrop perpetrates against Russell is almost as bad as the many wrongs he commits against Betsy, and the whole of his story alters dramatically in the book’s second and third sections, once the focus of the storytelling changes and once the spotlight shifts to the “headmaster’s wife” of the title. Greene has a carefully-calibrated story to tell in this side-winding novel, and he tells it with consummate skill.