by Carla Occaso
“The Headmaster’s Wife,” the latest book by Vermont College of Fine Arts president Thomas Christopher Greene, plunges the reader into a surprising, suspenseful, and multi-layered portrait of two people struggling to make sense of a privileged life on a carefree path of preordained destiny. Or are they on a preordained path? The unfolding of events in this book shows how unpredictable things happen even in what seems like predictable circumstances. What happens when the son next in line to multiple generations of headmasters at an elite boarding school turns his back on academia? Or when the headmaster’s sanity falters? Or when the headmaster’s wife bends under the burden of sorrow?
“The Headmaster’s Wife” mixes a suspense thriller with psychological overtones with a kind of epic literary work that echoes the timeless philosophical questions brought up in the classics, such as: “What is the point of life? What does it mean to love? If a person has everything he or she needs and more — what appears to be a perfect life — why can’t he or she be happy or at least satisfied?”
The main characters have what looks like a perfect life. They live on the fictional Lancaster School campus and have all their needs met by school staff. Headmaster Arthur Winthrop has a prestigious and well-paid job, a marriage, a child, and a beautiful home in a situation where the Winthrop family need not cook, clean, or mow their own lawn. And yet his wife ceases to enjoy the trappings and social obligations that come with being a headmaster’s wife and withdraws into her own world obsessed with tennis and her son’s safety. Her son, Ethan Winthrop, chooses to buck the Winthrop tradition, and, rather than following an academic career, instead joins the army and goes to Iraq in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This greatly disappoints Arthur, who doesn’t understand why his son would deviate from the family calling. Arthur seems to look down on his son’s choice given how obsessed Arthur is with money and status.
Father grows apart from son. Wife grows apart from husband. And the reader would never guess which character comes closest to surviving the march of time.
Arthur Winthrop is slightly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet, because, although Winthrop is not in line to be a king, he is in line to be the third headmaster of a prestigious Vermont boarding school, following in his father’s and his father’s father’s footsteps. He doesn’t have to search for a career or prove himself. He just has to go through the correct motions, including attending the right schools (starting with his father’s own Lancaster School). Also, like Hamlet, he wrestles with a complicated inner disturbance of fulfilling deep and forbidden desires while maintaining a veneer of having control over himself.
I read The Headmaster’s Wife in one nonstop session. It is that engaging. It is also sick, sad, authentic, and, in the end, hopeful. Upon closing the book after reading the acknowledgments at the end, I realized the story left behind the sense that time, life, love and all that is important flash around in surprising swirls that disappear as fast as they appear, like foam on the dark surface of the Connecticut River.
“The Headmaster’s Wife” was published in 2014, in New York, by St. Martin’s Press.