I’d heard a few recommendations of this 2014 novel set in a New England school. You get to the middle and suddenly you can’t put it down, people told me. And yes, in a way, that was true.
The Headmaster’s Wife is the story of a marriage in trouble, set in the enclave of a small private prep school, a claustrophobic world where privacy and personal freedom can be in short supply. Tradition holds sway at Lancaster, an exclusive boarding school for wealthy students aiming for Ivy League universities. A few scholarships bring in students from poorer backgrounds, such as Betsy Pappas, a brilliant student from a small town north of Lancaster, the product of hippy parents, and Russell Hurley, a plumber’s son who is there because he’s so good at sport.
Not so, Arthur Winthrop. He’s the son of a Lancaster headmaster, and the grandson of a Lancaster headmaster, and carrying on in the same family tradition (a good literature degree from Yale and a teaching career), is now the headmaster of the title. We catch up with Arthur at the start of the book when he’s lost his way. Walking through Central Park in the snow, he has some sort of mental breakdown, removes his clothes, before finding himself in police custody and requested to explain his behaviour.
The story flips back to his obsession with a student, Betsy Pappas, who is not only attractive, but really gets Russian literature. Meanwhile his wife plays a lot of tennis, or spends time in their son’s room, missing Ethan who has disappointed his father by joining the army instead of going to Yale. The succession of Winthrops as Lancaster headmasters will likely end with Arthur.
And she thinks perhaps that is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you that shatters like glass… They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as they both don’t completely shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground.
While the Headmaster’s Wife is about the Winthrops and their marriage, there’s also a mystery/suspense element that keeps you hooked. Communication problems, suppressed feelings as well as power and its abuse hover in the background. I was also reminded of that often quoted line from Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse”. You know the one.
To say more would spoil one or two surprises that give the book the impetus that keeps you reading. The story structure is original, and you can’t help but admire the clever storytelling, the fine writing, but the book will tug at your heartstrings too. I was glad of the recommendation to pick this up, as it’s a quiet, unassuming looking book that would have otherwise escaped my radar. The Headmaster’s Wife scores a four out of five from me.