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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Looking for something? Start here!

Trust us: ‘Trust Exercise’ is a truly great book

“We almost never know what we know until after we know it,” Susan Choi writes in the midst of her novel, “Trust Exercise.” This sentiment gets to the heart of her novella, a finalist for the 2019 National Book Awards Longlist in Fiction, and a book my soul could have written if it had the words. Although it is better not to know too many specifics before reading it, the story is told in three acts. It follows characters that build their lives in relation to a specialty performing arts high school, dubbed the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA), in an unnamed but recognizable southern city. The book begins with a high school relationship between two young characters, Sarah and David, and unspools from there, musing on memory, subjectivity, consent and worth.

Choi’s prose is delicious. It isn’t sparing but instead meanders, detailed through the thoughts of her characters. Choi has a way of writing things that you have never quite been able to identify but gets to the heart of an action, a thought, a way of being, in such a way that you can’t imagine ever having said or even experienced it more clearly. Things which you never thought could be written so truly are written here as if they are nothing, yet they feel like precious jewels of insight: the way you feel when you aren’t on the same page with someone, the mannerisms of an important teacher, the echoes of a past you can’t quite escape. The structure of the novel—which I cannot spoil for you now—also contributes to this feeling, as Choi brings the reader to unexpected places that feel exactly right.

I did not realize until I looked on Goodreads that this is a controversial book. Clearly, it is not for everyone—no art truly is. In this case, reading those reviews from readers who hated it, or gave up after 60 pages, or didn’t get it, left me frustrated. But as I thought about it more, I couldn’t blame them. “Trust Exercise” is a book that either resonates with you, or it doesn’t. It is a book you feel deeply, or you feel disconnected from. Perhaps this disconnect exists because you have never seen your life in terms of performance (or perhaps because you didn’t have a high school relationship with someone we’ll call “David”). 

Choi takes risks in this novel, and they definitely paid off for me. There were times when I could not tear my eyes away from the page, and other times when I was forced to—to truly process the words I was devouring. I will definitely be seeking out her other work, and I recommend this one to anyone searching for their next great book.

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