Jack Song is the only non-white faculty member at a boarding prep school in Delaware, grieving for the death of his sister. Taylor Alta, the newest hire, is a closeted lesbian grieving for the death of her best friend, who had been afraid to return her love. Their stories intertwine as they deal with bullying and student suicide at the school.
Although the subject matter of this book is dark, encompassing racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, sexual abuse, and teen suicide–in short, all the things you’d expect to find at a school–the mood and language are lyrical. Taylor is a top-level rower who’s now coaching the girls’ crew team; her chapters are filled with her awareness of the world of water and motion where she feels most at home, its beauty, its grace, and its brutality: it was water that gave her her beloved Sarah, and water that took her away. Jack is a young physics teacher and accomplished origami-folder who finds himself trying to explain all his failures and losses in terms of equations and natural forces, as he folds origami figures for people who will ultimately leave him. Both teachers find themselves attracted to Carla, an exuberant 6th-former with her own story to tell. The ending is not happily-ever-after, but each character finds as much peace as they can hope to find. A beautiful, bittersweet story that reads almost like poetry rather than prose, about wounded people struggling to fit into a society that can almost, but not quite, accept them.
This is not a technically difficult read–it is not particularly long nor, despite the poetic nature of the language and the multiple points of view, hard to follow–but it unquestionably “literary fiction.” Readers in search of a sugary fix should probably just move on, but anyone looking for a story that’s as complex and delicate as the paper cranes Jack folds would do well to check this book out.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.