I had a good feeling about The Rehearsal from the moment I purchased it from the sale table of Folio Books in Noe Valley. And when the bookstore cashier struck up a conversation about it with me, I discovered that he's a playwright who has read my blog!
And this book is really so good, you guys. So good.
The Rehearsal: A Novel by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I do theater, so I’m pretty much a sucker for any novel (or play, or movie) that tells a backstage story. As its title suggests, The Rehearsal is one of those, though it’s more complex than the typical narrative of a production from auditions to opening night. As the novel begins, we learn that the jazz-band teacher at a girls’ high school has been caught having an affair with one of his students. The book then shows how two different groups of artsy teenagers are affected by this news: the girls who go to the high school, especially the ones in the jazz band; and the first-year class at a local acting conservatory, who create a devised theater piece based on the sex scandal.
The Rehearsal has a lot to say about adolescent sexuality, but it’s not a romance. The jazz-band teacher and the girl he slept with remain peripheral characters. But it’s about a whole lot of other stuff: two art forms, jazz and theater, both of which involve a good deal of lore about how, in order to succeed, you have to use your own suffering and pain in your art. It’s about how sweet, middle-class, suburban teenagers decide that they want to do theater or play jazz, but they haven’t suffered enough to be great. It’s about how the adults in these teenagers’ lives alternate between wanting to preserve their innocence and wanting to educate them in the pain and cruelty of the world. It’s about the differences between the way teenage girls and teenage boys present themselves, and whether we (as an acting teacher puts it) wear “masks or faces.” It’s about how teenage girls are incorrigibly self-dramatizing.
All this is conveyed in prose that flirts with grandiloquence; the characters constantly deliver speeches that sound like monologues from some contemporary play. It’s stylized and heightened in the same way that theater can be, and you probably either love it or you hate it. Me, I’m thrilled to see a novelist taking inspiration from theater, and evoking the extreme emotional highs and lows of adolescence.
Eleanor Catton was just 23 when she wrote The Rehearsal, and it shows signs of being a young author’s work. The aforementioned grandiloquence, the sense that Catton is trying to cram everything she knows about human relationships into this one book, the ambition, the postmodern stylistic gimmicks, the prose that is self-consciously quotable and perceptive, are all hallmarks of a very bright but very young author. Still, it’s amazing that such a wise and self-assured book, with so much to say about the process of how we gain wisdom, should be written by someone so young. Like her characters, she’s curious, burning with ambition, fascinated by sex and psychology and hypocrisy, and too young to know any better.
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