Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Rehearsal: The Play's the Thing

Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal, written as her master's thesis, was published when she was only 23 years old. Her follow-up, The Luminaries, is a hugely complex, massive novel that won her a buttload of awards, recognition, and fame.

David Foster Wallace's debut novel, The Broom of the System, written as his undergraduate thesis, was published when he was 24 years old. His follow up novel, Infinite Jest, was a hugely complex, massive novel that won him a buttload of awards, recognition and fame.

Interesting, isn't it?

There are other comparison between the two, especially, it seems, in their theories on pushing the envelope on what a novel is. And I'm quite certain David Foster Wallace would've LOVED Eleanor Catton's stuff. But it's a little sad to think about. I can tell you this, though, now having read both of Catton's novels: I'll read every word she publishes forever. She's that good.

And but so, The Rehearsal — what a strange, inventive little novel! Publisher's Weekly wrote about The Rehearsal when it was first published in the US in 2010: "It's a good piece of writing, but not an especially enjoyable novel." I actually think it's a GREAT piece of writing, and as piece of fiction read for pleasure, PW might be right that it's not as enjoyable as say, a Dan Brown novel, but it's still immensely enjoyable. It just takes a little work.

The story is this: In the aftermath of a sexual scandal (a teacher slept with a student) at an all-girl's high school, several girls attempt to come to terms with what happened. These girls are all connected by a mysterious saxophone tudor, to whom they tell about the daily goings on in their lives, including the fallout from the scandal. There are three protagonists — one is Isolde, the younger sister of the girl Victoria, who was seduced (or was she the seducer?) by the teacher. Julia is another, she's an outspoken saxophone student and in the same class as Victoria. She and Isolde become acquainted and begin a relationship (or do they?). Finally, intertwined with the story of these girls is the story of acting student Stanley, who has been accepted into the prestigious Drama Institute. The stories converge near the end as Stanley becomes more involved in Isolde's life than he'd probably want to.

Part of the point of the novel — and I highlighted about 37 passages in this novel that relate to this; Catton is AMAZING on a line-by-line basis — is that it's so hard to tell what's genuine and what's an act. Catton writes: “Every word that comes out of your mouth – they’re just lines. They’re lines that you’ve learned very carefully, so carefully you’ve convinced yourself they are yours, but that’s all they are. They’re lines I’ve heard many times before.”

I loved this novel, but I may be in the minority. It's not a "difficult" novel, per se, but it's certainly not a straightforward, point-A-to-point-B type of fiction. We jump back and forth in time, we have several points of view, and sometimes we're not sure if we're in real-time action, or if a character is simply telling a story. It's heady stuff, but even if you don't understand everything Catton's up to here (and I sure didn't!), it's still an absolute pleasure to read. She's quickly become one of my favorite writers. 


  1. I absolutely loved this novel and am thrilled that someone else has a) read it and b) loved it. It sold me on Catton when it came out. I must say, though i thought the writing in The Luminaries was brilliant, i didn't actually enjoy it nearly as much. Sometimes short is sweeter.

  2. I just heard about this novel today, reading the synopsis on Eleanor Catton on Times' list of women to read. I think I might actually try this novel before The Luminaries to get a taste of her - especially because it seems that here too she's up to some convoluted tricks. ~Kelly,

  3. This is an astounding piece of writing. What at first appears incoherent, coalesces into a very clever interlacing of stories. I presume the author's closeness to the ages of the protagonists gives her insight, but I was impressed with her understanding of the feelings and motivations of the characters. I think a second reading necessary to catch everything that is offered, but despite its complexity, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read.