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Found mentally altered in Central Park, the headmaster of an elite boarding school imparts a story that is shaped by complicated memories, the evolution of a loving relationship and a tragedy he cannot comprehend. By the award-winning author of Envious Moon. 75,000 first printing. - (Baker & Taylor)
Found wandering naked and mentally traumatized in Central Park, the headmaster of an elite boarding school imparts a story that is shaped by complicated memories, the evolution of a loving relationship, and a tragedy he cannot comprehend. - (Baker & Taylor)
An immensely talented writer whose work has been described as "incandescent" (Kirkus) and "poetic" (Booklist), Thomas Christopher Greene pens a haunting and deeply affecting portrait of one couple at their best and worst.
Inspired by a personal loss, Greene explores the way that tragedy and time assail one man's memories of his life and loves. Like his father before him, Arthur Winthrop is the Headmaster of Vermont's elite Lancaster School. It is the place he feels has given him his life, but is also the site of his undoing as events spiral out of his control. Found wandering naked in Central Park, he begins to tell his story to the police, but his memories collide into one another, and the true nature of things, a narrative of love, of marriage, of family and of a tragedy Arthur does not know how to address emerges. Luminous and atmospheric, bringing to life the tight-knit enclave of a quintessential New England boarding school, the novel is part mystery, part love story and an exploration of the ties of place and family. Beautifully written and compulsively readable, The Headmaster's Wife stands as a moving elegy to the power of love as an antidote to grief.
"A truly remarkable novel, I read the second half of The Headmaster's Wife with my mouth open, my jaw having dropped at the end of the first half. Thomas Christopher Greene knows how to hook a reader and land him." --Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Empire Falls
"An accomplished and artful storyteller, Greene has surprises in store as he unspools a plot that becomes as poignant as it is unpredictable." --Wally Lamb,New York Times bestselling author of The Hour I First Believed
"Greene's genre-bending novel of madness and despair evokes both the predatory lasciviousness of Nabokov's classic,Lolita, and the anxious ambiguity of Gillian Flynn's contemporary thriller,Gone Girl (2012)." --Booklist - (McMillan Palgrave)
First Chapter or Excerpt
By Thomas Christopher Greene
St. Martin's Press
Copyright © 2014 Thomas Christopher Greene
All rights reserved.
The Headmaster's WifeThomas Christopher Greene ACRIMONYHe arrives at the park by walking down Central Park West and then through the open gates on West 77th street. This is in the winter. It is early morning and the sun is little more than an orangeish haze behind heavy clouds in the east. Light snow flurries fill the air. There are not many people out, a few runners and women bundled against the cold pushing strollers. He walks down the asphalt drive and when he reaches a path with a small wooden footbridge, he stops for a moment and it is there somewhere, a snatch of memory, but he cannot reach it. An elderly couple comes toward him, out for their morning walk. The man gives him a hearty good morning but he looks right through him. What is it he remembers? It is something beautiful, he is sure of it, but it eludes him like so many things seem to do nowadays. If he could access it, what he would see was a day twenty years earlier, in this same spot. Though it was not winter, but a bright fall day, the Maples bleeding red, and he is not alone. Elizabeth is here, as is his son, Ethan. They had gone to the musuem and then had lunch before coming into the park. Ethan's first trip to New York and he is five and though he loved the museum with its giant dinosaur skeletons, it is the park that draws his attention. The day could not be more glorious. Seasonably warm and without a cloud in the sky: a magical Manhattan day. Ethan runs ahead of them on the path. His wife takes his arm, leans into him. He looks down and smiles at her. They dont need to speak for they are both drinking in the moment, the day, the happiness of their boy and the gift of this experience. There is no reason to give it words. Ethan finds a gnarled tree on the side of the path that grows horizontally just a foot or so above the ground. He immediately climbs up on top of it, shimmying his little body over its trunk, and the two of them sit on a bench a few feet away and watch him. A couple of times they suggest they should keep walking but the boy will not have it. He has found a tree perfectly suited for him and he demands in the way that children do that he be watched, admired and studied as he climbs it one way, then the other. And this is okay, for they are in no rush. It is a small moment, but a perfect one. The child is right: where else would they rather be? What could be more complete? Now, standing on the same path, with the snow picking up and falling more steadily around him, he gives up trying to find this memory and instead focuses on the snow, tracing individual flakes as they come in front of his field of vision and then disappear. He is alone suddenly. There is no one walking in either direction. The park is his. He takes off his hat and places it on the ground. Then he removes his jacket. Next he undoes his tie and then his shirt and his undershirt. Soon he is naked, and he sets off again, leaving his clothes in a neat pile on the path, and he moves up and over the hilly terrain, his eyes straight ahead, oblivious to the people who gasp when they come around a corner to find him coming toward them. All that matters to him is the feel of his bare feet crunching wonderfully on the crusty snow beneath him. "Why dont you tell us what happened.""What happened?""Yes.""Where should I start?""Where do you want to start?"He looks at the men sitting across from him. It is a stupid question, he thinks. He says, "At the beginning of course.""That would be helpful," the man who does all the talking says. "Why do you care?""What do you mean?"I mean, "Why do you care? Just as it sounds." He was growing exasperated. "What am I to you?" "Sir, do you we need to refresh you on how we found you?" "I was in the park."One of the men laughs. The other one silences him with his hand. "Yes, you were in the park. Naked. Twenty degree weather. Snow on the ground. Walking in Central park naked.""Is that a crime?""Yes. It is in fact.""In Vermont its not.""Seriously?""Yes. You can be naked. You just cant be obscene.""Whats the difference?"He sighs. He looks down at his clothes. They are too big for him. He is practically swimming in these damn clothes. "Do I have to answer that?""No.""Good. Because that will tire me.""Just start then.""Okay," he says. "But I want some coffee. Strong coffee. Black."The man nods. "We'll get that for you. Begin."He leans forward. "The beginning," he says. "This is how it starts." It starts with the most innocent of gestures. She does something girls the world over do. She uses her long fingers to pull strands of straw-colored hair behind her ears. She is leaning over her book at her desk in the front row. I have not noticed her before, though it is only the second day since I've returned to the classroom. She is rather unremarkable. Maybe I've passed her on the walks around campus but I dont remember seeing her before. She looks up. She is pretty but in a sad-eyed Slavic kind of way. Her face slightly off-center, green eyes with small bags under them that will only grow with age, her skin clear and pink. I get lost looking at her. I forget for a moment the rest of the class, and when she turns her gaze away from the blackboard behind me to my face, I become aware of all the eyes on me. Time to speak. I look over their heads and find my voice. It was the Chair of the Board's idea that I step back into the classroom. At first the suggestion angered me. Especially how it was framed. You seem distracted, Arthur, Dick Ives said to me after the last board meeting. "Just didnt bring my A game, Dick," I said. "It's not just that," said Dick. "More of a general feeling the board has.""This isntt about golf again, is it?" It is well known that I hate golf. It is a silly game. Hitting a tiny ball with a stick for hours on end, and the board has been after me to do more of it. That donors expect it. For the life of me I have never been able to figure out what golf has to do with education at the Lancaster School. God, no, Dick said. It might benefit you to get back to your first love. Dip your toe in. Get closer to the mission. The capital campaign is done. Couldn't be a better time. And so in the fall I return to my old discipline, English, by teaching one class. I choose the Russians. I always loved the Russians. Pushkin and Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev and Chekhov. Dostoevsky and the great Tolstoy. The atmosphere, the ethos of their work. They remind me of Vermont in November. Dark moors and muted colors, landscapes awash in brown. Lives determined by birthright and accidents of fate. Anyway, right away I see the wisdom of Dick's advice. Standing in the classroom with the fall sun streaming through the windows, looking out over my charges, hearing the rise and fall of my voice, it is like I am transported back in time. I am twenty-four again, a year removed from Yale. In the classroom where I belong. Literature matters. Literature is important. This, I think, is why you raise money, why you build buildings, why you endure endless bus travel over these hills for Wednesday and Saturday sporting events. Because in few corners of the world can you find the deeper human truths still being taught as they should be. The kind of truths that mold minds and create leaders. Lancaster has yet to produce a President, though it has come close. Perhaps in this room in front of me, I imagine, one of them sits. I turn my attention back to the classroom. Handsome, preppy teenagers, the lot of them. The chosen ones. I pose a question, and it pleases me. The way it is constructed, grand enough to be rhetorical but also grounded. I look around. A few hands go up. I look over at her. Her hand is raised. She looks confident. Something about her speaks to me and I cannot figure out what. I call on her and I don't fully hear what she says, though she has a nice voice. Instead I am fixated on her face, as if somewhere in those sad eyes resides a clue as to why her pulling her hair behind her ears has made me notice her in a way that makes me realize that it has been a long time since I have noticed anything at all. That night at dinner I look for her. My table -- the headmasters table -- is at the far end of the great dining room with its high ceilings and chandeliers. My own chair always faces the entirety of the room, the great arched windows behind me. Every three weeks the students rotate tables. The idea is that they get to know the entire faculty and their families in time. It is a good system, I guess, though sometimes I wish we could follow other schools and move away from formal dining. My father would disagree but I never liked the small talk. I look over at my wife, Elizabeth. She has decided to come to dinner tonight. She does not appear all the time anymore, which is unusual for a spouse at Lancaster, especially for the wife of the Head of School. Elizabeth is wearing tennis clothes. I frown. Hardly appropriate. Tennis is her new and overwhelming obsession these past years. She plays as soon as her work at the library ends, and often rises before I do to hit serve after serve from a raised bucket on one of the indoor courts. This I cannot understand, though she tells me she finds it hypnotic and therapeutic. "Just serving over and over to no one?" I say to her once. "Yes," she says. "I don't get it.""There are lots of things you don't get about me," she says. As I am remembering this, one of the students at the table, a redheaded sophomore boy who fancies himself a clown is telling a story. He is from a well-known family and this adolescent clownishness I have seen dozens of time. It is his way of drawing attention to himself and while not particularly endearing to adults now, it will serve him well later. I half-listen to his story, something about Mr. Linder's math class, though the other kids laugh heartily, as does Elizabeth.And then I see her. She comes out of the kitchen with a tray in her hand. She is waiting tables, which isn't what it sounds like, since all the students at Lancaster are required to do campus jobs. Though anything associated with the cafeteria are among the least desirable, and at the minimum she is not a star athlete. All the athletes get simple jobs, like cleaning the basketball courts, which is done by the maintenance crew anyway. I turn to Elizabeth and whisper to her. "This girl, coming by with the tray, do you know her?"Elizabeth looks up. "She's new. Why?" "She's in my class. Said something interesting, that's all." "Jewish," says Elizabeth softly. "Interesting." "What's interesting about that?""Nothing," I say, though a picture begins to form in my mind. She is new and a junior, which is rare at Lancaster, and suggests she is smart. An overachiever from a suburban high school, Westchester, perhaps, or even New Jersey, Short Hills or some such place. New money parents. Dad an ambulance-chasing attorney or in middle management at Morgan Stanley. Commutes into the city. Mom who favors yellow gold, lots of it. She walks by our table. The tray is full of ramekins of Jell-O, heading for a nearby table. I contemplate the shape of her beneath her clothes. She is full breasted but otherwise unremarkable. This is her peak, I think rather ungenerously. She will never be this beautiful again. The headmaster's house is a white colonial that sits on the main road that runs through the quiet town of Lancaster, Vermont. Behind it are soccer fields and dorms and beyond those runs the Connecticut river, slow and fat. The house is large and designed for entertaining, with large high-ceilinged rooms downstairs. The upstairs originally had four bedrooms, though now only has three as my father, when he was Head of School, turned one of them into an office which I still use. After dinner Elizabeth and I climb upstairs. It is early but as is our pattern now, she stops at the top of the stairs and gives me her cheek. I lay a soft kiss on it. She goes to her bedroom which has become her room exclusively. I sleep in the guest room. It was never anything we talked about and I do not remember precisely when it first started. But we are happier this way. Married people often forget how nice it is to sleep alone.The other bedroom used to be mine, when I was a child, and later belonged to our son, Ethan. It is still Ethan's room, I suppose, and Elizabeth has refused to take down any of his things. His clothes still hang in the closet, his athletic trophies are still on the bureau. Ethan wanted out of Lancaster. After graduation he spurned Yale (and by so doing spurned me) and became a soldier. He went to Iraq where Elizabeth does nothing but worry about him. He disappoints me. Not that there is anything wrong with serving one's country. And despite what you may think, I do not need for him to return here as I did, or as my father or grandfather did. I do not need him to, though it surprises me he chose to impetuously close the door to that possibility. Though that is another story. As is my habit, I go into my study. I pour several fingers of scotch from the fifth I keep in the bottom right drawer of the large wooden desk. I nurse the scotch and absentmindedly turn on the laptop and review the day's e-mail. But something has me restless. I drain the scotch and go downstairs to fetch my coat. Outside the fall air is cool but the night is clear and without moon. Full of stars. I like to walk at night. It is mandatory study hall time and all the students are in their rooms or, with special permission, the library. Normally I head for the heart of campus, crossing the street and into the quadrangle, with its historic granite academic buildings and upper-class boys dorms. I like having this part of the campus to myself. Alone with the history of it all. But tonight I walk the other way, out across the soccer fields. The grass dewy on my shoes. I walk toward the four squat brick buildings that were built in the late 1960's to accommodate the new type of Lancaster student: girls. I was a freshman the year Lancaster went co-ed. My father made the decision with the board and it was controversial at the time, especially with alumni, though also with my classmates. I am still not sure what we feared would be lost.The buildings themselves I have always found an eyesore. Out of character with the rest of the campus, which is a tasteful mixture of stately granite and early 19th century clapboard homes, they are brick and featureless and were built on the cheap. When I was a student we used to call them the projects, though it has been a long time since I have heard that particular terminology. Then again, as headmaster, you hear less and less. I come down the small slope from the soccer field and then cross the pavement that runs in front of the dorms. The four buildings are in front of me, close together, separated by narrow alleys of grass. Each building is two stories, and the first floor windows are close enough to the ground that years ago we put into place what we call the one foot rule. Boys visiting from the upper campus must have at least one foot on the ground at all times when visiting the windows, which they do most evenings. I walk between the first two buildings, Fuller and Jameson Halls. The windows are lit up and the shades are all open. Inside are girls at their desks; girls lying facedown on their beds with books in front of them. Their doors open to the hallways inside as they are required to do. I pause in front of each window and look in, and while part of me knows there is something entirely untoward about the headmaster staring into the windows of the upper-class girls dorms, I am unfazed by it tonight. Not a single girl as much as looks up. I am an apparition. I make it through the first set of dorms, and then the second alleyway. It is on the third and final pass that I finally see her. Her room is a corner room, with two windows, one that faces the alley, and other that looks toward the river. She is at a desk closest to the alley window. Beyond her is her roommate, a girl I recognize, Meredith something or other, from New York. Her father is a prominent attorney specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Someone the board has targeted for cultivation. We are separated only by glass. She is reading for my class. Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Reading that is not even due for a week. She is ahead, which says something about her. She wears sweatpants, and one of those tight white tank tops that all the girls seem to wear these days. The ones that dont even attempt to cover their bellies. As if sensing me, she suddenly looks up, and then toward the window. I quickly step back. She has not seen me. She stands and arches her back like a cat. Her breasts are indeed full beneath the tank top, and her belly has only the slightest of outward curves. What is this? I am the Headmaster of the elite Lancaster School. I have been around young women my whole life, and have never so much as given their bodies more than passing consideration. That part of my mind has been closed for a long time. And now, here I find myself, on a cool full night under the stars on the old campus that has been my home for fifty-three of my fifty-seven years, peering at a eighteen year old girl through a window.
Excerpted from Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene. Copyright © 2014 Thomas Christopher Greene. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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A man found running naked in Central Park is unusual, even by jaded New York City standards. But when that man turns out to be Arthur Winthrop, respected headmaster of Vermont's venerable Lancaster private boarding school, the event becomes noteworthy. It morphs into the surreal when Arthur eagerly confesses to police interrogators that he has just murdered one of his students, Betsy Pappas, with whom he had been conducting a torrid, if unrequited, affair. The problem with Arthur's story, however, is that his victim is very much alive. She no longer goes by the name Betsy Pappas, having relinquished it when she married Arthur soon after their college graduation. Arthur's unreliable memories of their life together fuel the sordid tale he unveils, though Elizabeth's recollection of their doomed marriage sheds an equally unflattering light on a relationship defined by jealousy, deception, and regret. Greene's genre-bending novel of madness and despair evokes both the predatory lasciviousness of Nabokov's classic, Lolita, and the anxious ambiguity of Gillian Flynn's contemporary thriller, Gone Girl (2012). Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.
Library Journal Reviews
Greene (Mirror Lake; Envious Moon) has created a brilliant, harrowing novel depicting the spectacular unraveling of a once distinguished and proudly successful man. He has also conceived one of the most convincingly drawn unreliable narrators that readers may ever meet, a character recalling the creations of Edgar Allan Poe. It is nearly halfway through the novel before we begin to understand that our storyteller, Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of the elite Lancaster School in Vermont, is delusional and psychotic—and has suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown. A number of events trigger this collapse, including the loss of his son in the Iraq war and the heavy drinking that follows this tragedy. Also crucial to this breakdown is an old crime that haunts Arthur, one he committed at Lancaster as a student many years ago with the help of his father, the previous headmaster, and which involved the boyfriend of an ex-girlfriend of Arthur's. VERDICT This is a riveting psychological novel about loss and the terrible mistakes and compromises one can make in love and marriage. Essential for fans of literary fiction.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
[Page 82]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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