In the fewer than three hundred pages of The Headmaster’s Wife, Thomas Christopher Greene gives us at least three different books: one a thriller, one a romance, and one a domestic drama. I wondered whether, by doing so, Greene was deliberately tipping his hat to the great Russian writers, particularly Dostoevsky, who combined similar elements on a much larger scale– which would make sense in a book where one of the main characters teaches Russian literature.
This teacher, Arthur Winthrop, is the titular headmaster at Lancaster, a fictional private prep school in Vermont. His father was headmaster before him, and because of this Arthur has lived his life in calm anticipation of all that would be passed down to him: college at Yale, a teaching position, and appointment to headmaster. Now, in his late fifties, his wife has become strangely distant, and his son has disappointed him by joining the military. He explains all this to the police, who at the start of the novel find him wandering naked through Central Park in the middle of winter. By way of further explanation, Arthur tells the police of his recent involvement and obsession with one of his 18-year-old students, and in doing so confesses to more than just a lapse of propriety.
In case I’m not being clear, this is not the romance to which I referred earlier. It’s creepy and disturbing and everything that goes along with an adult taking advantage of a young person to whom he is obliged to act in loco parentis. As a character, Arthur inspires loathing for his selfishness, entitlement, and weak will.
As a narrator, however, he is fascinatingly unreliable. The Executive Committee of the school calls him to a meeting to discuss “the challenges” he has had recently and rumors they have heard about his “lack of focus.” He knows they are not talking about his affair, but he is not sure what they are talking about, except that he is obliquely accused of drinking too much. His wife, Elizabeth, begs him to “wake up” and talk to her about what is happening in their lives. His father wants to talk to him about the “hard time” he’s been having lately. Again, Arthur has no idea what they mean. Meanwhile, Arthur’s student-mistress begins to pull away from him, and he refuses to let her go gracefully, becoming manipulative and vindictive. We begin to wonder how much of what Arthur says is true. It turns out that much of it is true, but not in the way Arthur thinks, or in any way the reader is likely to guess.
The second half of the novel is told from Elizabeth’s perspective, as she looks back on the beginnings of her relationship with Arthur and their life at Lancaster. It is the story of a marriage in which Elizabeth’s longings and flaws dovetail Arthur’s, a revelation that results in a slightly– very slightly– more equitable distribution of responsibility for the marriage’s ultimate decline. Reading this half of the book makes it clear what a careful writer Greene is. The elements correspond so neatly to each part of the first half while simultaneously giving those parts an entirely different context.
But, like Elizabeth and Arthur as a couple, the two halves of the book fit together only as a collection of parts; as a whole, they feel disappointing. If the revelations of Elizabeth’s story bring to light the mysteries of Arthur’s confession, they also do as much to sweep his narrative under the rug. They lessen the impact of the book’s first part by relegating it to nothing more than a plot hook (albeit a very effective one). It diminishes, rather than expands, the excellent work set forth in the first section.
This is not to say the second half isn’t any good. In terms of quality it even surpasses the first half, forgoing mystery and suspense for authenticity and complexity. Through his explanation of Arthur and Elizabeth’s very different upbringings, Greene sustains an intelligent commentary on how the class into which we are born can influence our sense of entitlement and the way we react to adversity. Greene’s insight is also apparent in a short description of Elizabeth’s ambivalence about whether to have a child.
Having given us both a thriller and a domestic drama, then, Greene concludes with a romance, which has the by-now familiar effect of tying things up neatly at the expense of the darkness and complexity that came before. It doesn’t negate that complexity, exactly– Greene is too good a writer for that– but it does have the effect of stifling any sustained emotional or intellectual response a reader could have had upon finishing the novel. “They lived happily ever after,” is not an ending worthy of any of the stories Greene tells here.