Trust Exercise: A Novel
Set inside the acting program of an elite high school, Choi’s novel seems to consider every major preoccupation of our moment — class, gender, sexuality, race, power, predation, authenticity, ‘genius’ — with language that’s both uproarious and frothing with vital rage. To describe the plot in any detail, though, would reveal too much of Trust Exercise’s inventive, audacious form. Best let this novel sink into your bones with as few spoilers as possible before its final scene seizes your heart. And it will seize your heart. Trust me.
A psychological masterclass. I can think of no better place to dissect how micro actions toward each other suggest macro feelings than a famous arts high school where emotions, power dynamics, and naivete mascarading as bravado are at their peak and ever shifting. Many have said, and I will too, that you have to read this one knowing as little as possible about what to expect. All I’ll say is that it left me with a potent emotion spurred by a slowly revealed truth, not just about the characters but about our world, and Susan Choi is a genius.
WINNER OF THE 2019 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION
“Electrifying” (People) • “Masterly” (The Guardian) • “Dramatic and memorable” (The New Yorker) • “Magic” (TIME) • “Ingenious” (The Financial Times) • "A gonzo literary performance” (Entertainment Weekly) • “Rare and splendid” (The Boston Globe) • “Remarkable” (USA Today) • “Delicious” (The New York Times) • “Book groups, meet your next selection" (NPR)
In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving “Brotherhood of the Arts,” two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.
The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true—though it’s not false, either. It takes until the book’s stunning coda for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place—revealing truths that will resonate long after the final sentence.
As captivating and tender as it is surprising, Susan Choi's Trust Exercise will incite heated conversations about fiction and truth, and about friendships and loyalties, and will leave readers with wiser understandings of the true capacities of adolescents and of the powers and responsibilities of adults.
Praise for Trust Exercise: A Novel
WINNER OF THE 2019 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF 2019 by The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times, ELLE, Bustle, Town & Country, Publishers Weekly, The Millions, The Chicago Tribune, and TIME
“Mind-bending. . . . A Gen-X bildungsroman that speaks to young generations, a Russian nesting doll of unreliable narrators, and a slippery #MeToo puzzle-box about the fallibility of memory. . . . [Trust Exercise is] a perfectly stitched together Frankenstein’s monster of narrative introspection and ambiguity. . . . It flexes its own meta-existence—as a novel about the manipulation inherent in any kind of narrative—brilliantly.”
—New York Magazine
“[Trust Exercise] burns more brightly than anything [Choi’s] yet written. This psychologically acute novel enlists your heart as well as your mind. Zing will go certain taut strings in your chest. . . . Choi builds her novel carefully, but it is packed with wild moments of grace and fear and abandon. . . . [A] delicious and, in its way, rather delicate . . . phosphorescent examination of sexual consent.”
—The New York Times
“An intelligent and layered portrait of a school’s legacy. . . . [Trust Exercise] makes something dramatic and memorable from the simple elements of a teen movie.”
—The New Yorker
“Perhaps the best [novel] this year. . . . [Trust Exercise] begins as an enthralling tale of teenage romance and then turns into a meticulously plotted interrogation of the state of the novel itself. . . . Read it once for pleasure, and then again to turn up all the brilliant Easter eggs.”
“Ingenious. . . . Choi’s prose is damp with tears and sweat, bruised with hurt and lust, sprinkled with sugar, salt, and e-numbers. Hormones practically drip off the page. . . . [But] then, suddenly and without warning, Choi executives a bravura bait-and-switch. . . . Sure, submitting to it is a ‘trust exercise’ all of its own, but the razzmatazz that awaits is well worth it.”
—The Financial Times
“Magic. . . . This mind-bending book is worth the wait as Choi challenges readers to consider the boundaries between fiction and reality.”
“Masterly. . . . [Choi has] taken the issues raised by #MeToo and shown them as inextricable from more universal questions about taking a major role in someone else’s life, while knowing that we’re offering only a minor part in return. . . . With consummate wit, punchiness and feeling, [Choi] shows how much we need our female novelists within the sea change of our current moment.”
“An elaborate trick; [Trust Exercise] is a meta work of construction and deconstruction, building a persuasive fictional world and then showing you the girders, the scaffolding underneath, and how it’s all been welded together. It’s also a work that lives in the gray area between art and reality: the space where alchemy happens.”
“Book groups, meet your next selection. . . . Trust Exercise is fiction that contains multiple truths and lies. Working with such common material, Choi has produced something uncommonly thought-provoking.”
“Electrifying. . . . [A] story that cuts to the heart of gender politics and the teacher-student dynamic.”
“A gonzo literary performance one could mistake for a magic trick, duping its readers with glee before leaving them impossibly moved. . . . Facts are debated in Trust Exercise, yes, but Choi always tells the truth.”
“In her masterful, twisty [novel], Susan Choi upgrades the familiar coming-of-age story with remarkable command . . . [displaying her] talent for taking ineffable emotions and giving them an oaken solidity. . . . So many books and films present teenage years as a passing phase, a hormonal storm that passes in time. Choi, in this witty and resonant novel, thinks of it more like an earthquake—a rupture that damages our internal foundations and can require years to repair.”
“A twisting feat of storytelling. . . . [Choi] uses language brilliantly. . . . She is an astute, forensic cartographer of human nature; her characters are both sympathetic and appalling. In the end, [Trust Exercise] is a tale of missed connection and manipulation—and of willing surrender to the lure and peril of the unknown.”
“Choi’s voice blends an adolescent’s awe with an adult’s irony. It’s a letter-perfect satire of the special strain of egotism and obsession that can fester in academic settings. . . . [Choi is] a master of emotional pacing: the sudden revelation, the unexpected attack. . . . How cunningly this novel considers the way teenage sexuality is experienced, manipulated, and remembered. . . . The result is a dramatic exploration of the distorting forces of memory, envy, and art. . . . You won’t be disappointed.”
—The Washington Post
“Compulsively readable and formally brilliant: this is basically a literary unicorn.”
“Sharp, willy. . . . Trust Exercise busts out of its coming-of-age shell and becomes a stranger and far more marvelous creature.”
“Choi, a master novelist, takes advantage of her prose’s magnetic qualities. . . . Kaleidoscopic. . . . Prepare for an ending that will make you question everything.”
“A rare and splendid literary creature: piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining, and so masterfully intricate that only after you finish it, stunned, can you step back and marvel.”
—The Boston Globe
“[As readers] we find ourselves doubting everything we previously took as fact. It’s dark, evocative, and fun.”
"A Russian doll of a novel. . . [A] clever and ultimately delightful set of narratives tucked inside on another in a complex take on truth and art, and the grey area in between."
—The Telegraph (UK)
“Choi captures this awkward, vulnerable stage [of maturity] perfectly—the shifts in peer loyalty, the perilous allure of adults. . . . Dazzling.”
—The Mail on Sunday (UK)
“One of the most insightful commentaries on life in the #MeToo era.”
“A fun twisty treat. . . . You’ll definitely want to read with a friend to trade reactions and hot takes.”
“A punchy, hotly anticipated novel. . . . Strap in for a wild ride.”
—Town & Country
“Fresh, nuanced. . . . Choi writes passages of real beauty, some of which stumble forth raw and unformed, fragments and observations that double back, accreting. Other times she deploys descriptions that feel more planned out and note perfect.”
"Fans of experimental plot structure will find much to love in [this] spellbinding new novel."
“A feat. . . . [Trust Exercise] is bold. . . . There is innuendo and insinuation and a hint of sinister. . . . In the end, there’s no shortage of insight in this novel. Or pathos.”
“[A] remarkable novel with a narrative twist that will knock you out.”
“Gets at questions of truth and fiction in a way that feels, this year, particularly relevant.”
“Never have I ever encountered a narrative twist that caused me to question everything I’d just read.”
"Explosive. . . . [Trust Exercise] will linger long after the book ends."
"This twisty novel . . . seems a straightforward enough story—until the roller-coaster second half makes you doubt everything that came before."
“Immerses the reader in the suffocating hothouse atmosphere of a 1980s performing arts high school and all the intense drama, heartbreak, and scandal many remember from their teen years.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Riveting. . . . [Trust Exercise] will surely become a favorite with book clubs.”
“A book you will very much want to discuss with other readers.”
"Superb, powerful . . . Choi’s themes—among them the long reverberations of adolescent experience, the complexities of consent and coercion, and the inherent unreliability of narratives—are timeless and resonant. Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"What begins as the story of obsessive first love between drama students at a competitive performing arts high school in the early 1980s twists into something much darker in Choi's singular new novel . . . an effective interrogation of memory, the impossible gulf between accuracy and the stories we tell. . . . The writing (exquisite) and the observations (cuttingly accurate) make Choi's latest both wrenching and one-of-a-kind. Never sentimental; always thrillingly alive."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[Choi’s] finest novel. . . . Trust Exercise should immediately put readers on alert . . . exposing tenuous connections between fiction, truth, lies, and, of course, people. Literary deception rarely reads this well.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Choi toys with our trust but it pays off in dividends. . . . Trust us.”
“Brilliant. . . . Trust Exercise deftly shifts time and perspective, and teen drama becomes a dark, edgy exploration of boundaries between coercion and consent, theater and reality, charisma and manipulation, and student and teacher.”
—The National Book Review
"An ingenious, morally complex exploration of how our youthful entanglements, cruelties, and traumas shape the rest of our lives. Choi’s writing is dazzling in its control and precision; this witty, sharp, unsettling novel grabs you and won’t let you go."
—Dana Spiotta, National Book Award-nominated author of Eat the Document and Innocents and Others
"I can't remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to a book, or was so dazzled by a writer's inventiveness with structure. Susan Choi is a master and Trust Exercise should be on every human's reading list. A perfect knockout, with profound things to say about art-making, adolescence, and consent."
—Julie Buntin, author of Marlena
"This novel is a work of genius and should be a future classic. It has the most audacious narrative shift I've read since John Fowles's The Collector. Plus, it includes the phrase 'a virtuoso feeling-state lasagna.'"
—Gabe Habash, author of Stephen Florida
"What a wickedly clever, formally inventive book Trust Exercise is. I was blown away by Susan Choi's literary vision, not to mention her sensitivity and wit."
—Jami Attenberg, New York Times bestselling author of All Grown Up and The Middlesteins
“As soon as I finished . . . [I was] desperate to talk about the novel with anyone else who’d read it. A startling, perplexing, fascinating book by a writer I’ve long been—and will always be—eager to read.”
—R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries
"Packed with the kind of shrewd psychological insights that make you sit up straighter, Trust Exercise is a frequently brilliant novel that draws you in slowly and carefully and then becomes increasingly hard to put down. I don't want to give too much away, so all I'll say is that the book is full of twists that are thrilling without being manipulative or melodramatic. I am sure I am far from the only one who had to put aside everything else while I raced to the end."
—Adelle Waldman, nationally bestselling author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
"Trust Exercise is a brilliant and challenging novel, an uncanny evocation of the not-so-distant past that turns into a meditation on the slipperiness of memory and the ethics of storytelling. Susan Choi is a masterful novelist, who understands exactly where we are right now and how we got here."
—Tom Perrotta, New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Fletcher, The Leftovers, Little Children, and Election