A high school sex scandal jolts a group of teenage girls into a new awareness of their own potency. The sudden publicity seems to turn every act into a performance and every space into a stage. But when the local drama college decides to turn the scandal into a show, the real world and the world of the theatre are forced to meet, and soon the boundaries between private and public begin to dissolve…
First published: 2008
If I’d have done a “2016 in review” type of thing, The Rehearsal would’ve been the book I’d have put under “best book you read this year” (although perhaps not my favourite per se). Today I realised I never wrote a review for it, so here’s me doing that a couple of months after reading it. Let’s see if I still remember some things!
I read The Luminaries (which earned Eleanor Catton a Man Booker Prize) in 2015 and really liked it a lot, so when a friend of mine told me that The Rehearsal was great, too, I immediately put it on my TBR. Of course, I only read it over a year later, because that’s how things go – you all know. One of the things that interested me before going into the book was the fact that The Rehearsal was Eleanor Catton’s Master’s thesis. Her rather succesful debut novel is her Master’s thesis. That’s crazy! I was looking forward to feeling bad about my own accomplishments while marveling at Catton’s – and that I did.
The story features two storylines: one follows the saxophone teacher and some of her teenage students and the other follows Stanley, a first year drama school student. At first the storylines don’t really seem to have anything to do with each other, but they are interwoven rather expertly as the characters’ stories get more and more intertwined. I loved the gradual pace with which this was done, and it kept me on my toes the entire time.
What I love most about The Rehearsal is the blurring of the boundaries between ‘real’ and performance. The story is about a play based on a real life situation that is also part of the story. Then there is the exploration of high school in particular but also life in general and the performances people seem to play or are forced to play in that. “What is reality?” is a question that constantly remains at the surface, and if there’s anything I like it’s a book that questions reality (hence my undying love for The New York Trilogy).
The culmination of this doubt and confusion comes in subtle sentences that are scattered throughout the book. You think you’re reading about the ‘real life’ of the ‘real characters’ (whatever that may really mean), but then all of a sudden there’s a sentence commenting on, for example, how the light suddenly changed or on how an actor played a particular part so very well. These sentences made me grin with delight. To me, this was such an intelligent way of commenting on the idea of performing and on the absurdity of the term ‘reality’. I loved it!
I haven’t even commented on the characters yet, but like I said, it’s been a while since I read it. My favourite character was the saxophone teacher – she’s absolutely fascinating to me, and I actually wished we’d gotten to know a little less about her and her past. To me, she was made a little too vulnerable. She was perfect in her role as all-knowing, judging, sometimes jealous teacher. Her back story made her just slightly less intriguing to me, but she’s still one of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a while.
The other characters were all a little unlikeable, but not in a bad way. There was something about them – they intrigued me because of their uninterestingness (is that a word? – It is now). I think the writing style had a lot to do with this as well. Catton writes the story from a certain observational distance, which almost makes it more into a study than a story – and I loved that about it. Although some people have said that that made it hard for them to connect with the story, to me it simply added another layer of intrigue and intelligence that made it all the more interesting.