Review: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

2017:8
4/5 stars
Published 2008

There’s a character in this book that says (and I’m paraphrasing) that the teen years are merely a rehearsal for the rest of your life. That would seem to be both the case and the strong theme here. The story follows two streams, a scandal regarding a teacher who has had an affair (or was it abuse/rape?) with a student at an exclusive girls’ school and a young man making his way in an acting school.

We never really find out the truth of the scandal. The book is more concerned with it’s effects on the girl’s peers in school and on her younger sister. The first year acting students take on the scandal and present it as their first year play. The two streams don’t really cross over too much until late in the book when Stanley, an acting student meets Isolde, the younger sister of Victoria who is at the centre of the scandal.

Also involved in the plot is the saxaphone teacher, a middle aged woman who seems to have had an unrequited crush on her own past music teacher and is still obsessed by what could have been, her imagination making up for what never was between them. She also seems to live through her young female students, encouraging the gossip, slyly manipulating and influencing them, especially Isolde and a student, Julia, who is a loner and a bit of an outcast. The teacher seems to see in them herself (Julia) and her former teacher, Patsy (Isolde) and seems intent on pushing them together to make up for what she didn’t have with Patsy.

The novel is about reactions, dreams, gossip, jealousies, and the nature of teenage girls mainly, how they are, how they feel, their own micro-society with a predetermined pecking order, all sardonically observed by the saxaphone teacher or by the dialogue and descriptions by the author. Characters make speeches and have thoughts that can be profound, philosophical, enigmatic, insightful and better suited to stage or film than in a book. People don’t really talk/think that way in real life, teenage girls certainly don’t but since theatre is not a reflection of reality, rather that it’s insulated, isolated and exaggerated, perhaps that’s why the book is written in this style. It gives you the feel of watching a play.

Stanley and the acting school seems to be only a more minor part of the book as he tries to figure out his own life. You get the feeling everything his does is just another role.

The timeline jumps around a lot and it’s not always easy to follow. Apparently, Stanley’s story is told in the proper sequence but the girls’ story is the one that’s out of order. I found it a bit confusing at times. One other aspect of note is that almost none of the teachers in the book are named aside from the teacher in the scandal and one other. They are referred to by their roles, Head of Acting, Head of Movement, the Saxaphone teacher. The movie listing at IMDB gives them all names. It keeps coming back to the theatre and Ms. Catton’s style of writing really enforces that feel. It’s a very different style but once I got used to it, I stopped thinking “people don’t really talk like this! A teacher would never say things like that to a student or parent” and I just relaxed into the narrative.

The Rehearsal is Eleanor Catton’s debut novel, written when she was 22. She’s considered a Canadian writer as she was born here but has lived in New Zealand for some time. The book has been made into a movie in New Zealand and it was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016. This book also fills one of my “Bingo” squares for the CanadianContent group’s 2017 Bingo challenge on Goodreads, for “Book made into a movie or television show”.

Here’s the trailer:


You can already see some differences. The student in the book that has the relationship with the teacher is a musician, but in the movie, she’s an athlete having an affair with her coach. I don’t know if the saxaphone teacher or that whole aspect is in there at all though from one of the voiceovers, it might be.

Her second novel, The Luminaries won the Mann Booker prize and the Governor’s General prize and will also be filmed as a television mini-series. It’s a historical epic taking place in 19th century New Zealand.

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