“The Possibility Exists”: Zoe Whittall, The Best Kind of People

whittallIf only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head—and people around you believe it—you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.

Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People would adapt well as a TV miniseries. I don’t mean that in a slighting way at all! It’s just that like, say, Little Fires Everywhere, it’s at once an intimate family story and a story about the way we live now. It turns on a specific accusation of sexual assault; it attaches the particularities of its plot and characters to threads about the different interest groups that turn a question of right and wrong into a cause, with varying degrees of solicitude for the facts of the case. It raises questions about knowledge and complicity, and about love and forgiveness. How could you not know the person you are closest to? How far are you liable for the parts of them you don’t know? How far should your trust for the part you do know shape your assumptions about what they are capable of, about whose side you should be on? Whose support will you have—and whose should you want, if the price of it is your values? These are all good and often surprisingly hard questions for the characters in the novel, and they are not neatly resolved when the question of guilt or innocence is answered.

whittall3The novel focuses on the family of the accused teacher, George Woodbury: his wife, his daughter, and his son. In its attention to the fallout of the accusation, rather than to the details of the case, The Best Kind of People reminded me of the TV series Rectify, which defers answers about its protagonist’s guilt or innocence, so that we have to sit in the same uncertainty as his family. If you love someone, both stories emphasize, you will want to think them incapable of wrongdoing – but, as the excerpt I chose for my epigraph highlights, once the possibility is raised, you don’t really have the option of ignoring it. To do so, also, is to ignore the claims of the victims. Whittall does a good job tracing a range of possible reactions, including how they ebb and flow, from trust to anger, from loyalty to horrified conviction, depending on what is known or said, or just on the mood of the moment. The accusations alone trigger reassessments, from every angle, of an entire family history. The resulting destabilization has ripple effects through the lives of everyone affected.

The Best Kind of People teases us, through its characters’ attempts to discern or rationalize the truth about George’s conduct, with the possibility of a moral or circumstantial grey area in which the accusations can be true and he can be exculpated, or at least found “not abhorrent,” if not “not guilty.” The ending of the novel is somewhat irresolute, but in ways that made it quite dissatisfying, both morally and personally. I think perhaps that was the point: even if we (like George’s family) want this kind of both/and result, it isn’t really an option, while at the same time the difficulty of getting any kind of definitive outcome, much less justice, makes things worse rather than better.

whittall2The other reason The Best Kind of People struck me as well suited to adaptation is that stylistically I would describe it as workmanlike rather than particularly artful. I don’t think much would be lost in the translation into a different medium. This is something I sometimes say about Jane Austen too, though for slightly different reasons (so much of the action of her novels is in dialogue, for one thing, or can be shifted to it)—so again it isn’t meant as a slight. I did feel, though, that the novel read like a plan being well executed more than something being written really well. Given how hard it is to get two people to agree on what “well written” means, maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. Anyway, I enjoyed reading the novel, though it is sad and hard going at times. I think it’s smart about its central scenario, and it created a believable version of how something so unpleasant might play out among those used to thinking of themselves as “the best kind of people.”