Cleverly plotted, albeit with slightly unsympathetic characters, Greene’s novel is an easy read. Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of the elite Lancaster School, sees himself as slightly out of place as he ruminates on a cool fall night under the stars in a place that has been his home for fifty-three of his fifty-seven years. Though destined to be Lancaster’s headmaster since he himself was a student, Arthur has never really been accepted by the school authorities, though he has worked hard to promote the school’s interests and build a life that is grounded in the institution
at which his father was also headmaster.
Realistically, Arthur has little reason to grumble, other than the fact that he seems to be drifting away from his wife, Elizabeth. The two have been married for years;
they met and fell in love when Elizabeth was a student at Lancaster. It is Elizabeth who is always at his side, Elizabeth who is accomplished at moderating his behavior.
It is also Elizabeth who has helped Arthur get through much of the politics and the daily grind of the school.
In a landscape where love is as fickle as the wind, Greene portrays an insular community naturally dedicated to the students, not to mention the wealthy benefactors who have contributed financially over the years. For them, the bright, blessed day is the present, and the dark sacred night is the past.
For Arthur, the present is at once dark, inaccessible, mysterious, and sometimes a little frightening. Lately there’s a sense of dislocation and a persuasive lack of connection
that leads Arthur to drink heavily, an activity that has not gone unnoticed by the powers that be.
When Arthur spies eighteen-year-old Betsy Pappas though the window of her dorm room, he suddenly becomes “crazy with lust,” oblivious to all except what is in front of him. A bright scholarship student, Betsy was lucky enough to land a place at prestigious Lancaster, a school that prides itself on accepting the gifted regardless of whose progeny they may be. Betsy has a subtle and agile mind
with charms that lie just below the surface and that, for Arthur, seem invisible to the rest of the world.
Dividing the novel into three sections and telling the story from the perspectives of both Arthur and Elizabeth, Greene plays with different points of view as he
considers the notions of beauty, the inexplicability of desire, the nature of “lasting love,” and the definition of family. Arthur is well aware that he’s about to do something that will change his life forever, something that, in a second, will perhaps will undo all he has done. He takes Betsy on a clandestine trip to Boston, where the sex between them
is “oddly thrilling.” At night in New York City, in Central Park where the light is tinged with November gold, Arthur finally cements his obsession.
Although Betsy ultimately proves to be a temptress and a girl wise beyond her years, for the moment Arthur is having fun with her. Elizabeth meanwhile, sits in her son Ethan’s empty room, staring out at the snow-covered fields that slope toward the woods. Mired in the past, she remembers what she once saw in Arthur, how she once wanted to belong to Lancaster more than anything. She tells us that when she first arrived, all she wanted was “this house, this school, this accomplished husband” with his handsome, long lashes and perfect features. Elizabeth talks of her perfectly scripted life,
at the center of which was Ethan: “it is impossible to love anything more than I love my son.”
Tragedy defines Elizabeth’s life, while lust and duplicity seems to define her husband’s. Arthur readily admits that he cannot let Betsy go, his reputation and his career soon in danger of being tossed aside by his shadowy indiscretions. Ironically, by his actions and with no real protection, Arthur opens himself up to the accusations of Betsy and her boyfriend, handsome basketball star Russell Hurley. This causes Betsy to straddle two worlds: the world of school, where Russell is a “prime catch,” and Arthur’s adult world, which she longs to be fully a part of.
Although Greene’s words are stylish and haunting and he beautifully describes
Arthur and Elizabeth’s private, intimate lives, the set-up that launches the
book into motion feels too much like a novelist’s trick. Greene seems too aware of the improbability that Arthur’s quest to double-cross Russell was either a plausible solution to his professional
or personal malaise. About halfway through, the plot takes a crucial turn that demonstrates the essential nature of the characters‘ connections--the tenuous nature of honesty, the randomness of fate, and the fragility of love--yet
it is this very twist that has the gears turning and reminds us of the
novelist’s too-palpable design.