BookBrowse Reviews His Favorites by Kate Walbert

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His Favorites

by Kate Walbert

His Favorites by Kate Walbert X
His Favorites by Kate Walbert
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2018, 160 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2019, 160 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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A slim, dark tale of sexual abuse at a Northeastern prep school narrated by a victim consumed by grief and guilt.

In His Favorites, Kate Walbert weaves an intricate web of grief and psychological vulnerability around her protagonist, a teenager violated by an older man while trying to overcome a recent trauma. It is a devastating portrayal of the kind of persistent harassment and abuse that is all too frequently perpetrated by an authority figure against a subordinate, incidents which have appeared in the news with alarming frequency (See Beyond the Book).

The novel is set in the late 1970s. After a teenage prank ends in tragedy, 15-year-old Jo Hadley is whisked away from her home in Baltimore to a Boston-area boarding school called Hawthorne. She is almost immediately singled out by the popular young English teacher Christopher Aiken, whom the students refer to (portentously) as "Master." After she is admitted into his exclusive literature class, Jo is groomed, manipulated, and coerced into a sexual relationship, and afterwards bribed, threatened, and disbelieved. The novel is book-ended by passages in which Jo makes it clear that she is presently speaking to a legal representative seeking justice on behalf of another client, adding an additional layer of urgency. It is a bare-bones plot but filled with quiet moments of horror and devastation that are sometimes surprisingly banal, sometimes infuriating, but portrayed with a realistic intensity.

Walbert's sentences are long and complex, but her language is precise to an almost suffocating degree, words wrapping around words like she is tying a noose. The scene of the initial tragedy (which occurs on a golf course) is taut and bursting with detail: "It is a moonless night or a night of a new, absent moon: everything waiting for the beginning of something else—pond fountains full blast against the rising din of crickets and peepers and that late-summer whir I've never been able to place, that ominous insect sound at summer's end, an explosion of noise abruptly extinguished." It is a summer night of teenage hijinks, but the description is claustrophobic, filled with eerie foreshadowing of what's to come.

The cruelty and alienation of adolescence is also depicted with a dark realism as Jo navigates the murky waters of prep school. She senses that another girl is being similarly abused by "Master," but the two never make a connection. Jo's dormitory roommate Cynthia is an opera-obsessed control freak who is bullied relentlessly. Walbert captures Jo's simultaneous disgust and pity with Cynthia in details that provide a few welcome moments of humor in the novel. When there is a knock on the door in the middle of the night, Cynthia rushes to pull on her robe, as Jo notes, "She had a pathological modesty, dressing every morning beneath her blankets as if on a camping trek in Siberia." The setting of Hawthorne is vividly-rendered, with its centuries' old buildings, "each moss-covered and dank, [with] foundations that weep in certain places." The school fosters a boy's club atmosphere where a "panty raid" by the male students is looked upon as good clean fun.

Walbert exhibits an innate understanding of the nuances of misogyny that lead to abuses of power like the one depicted here. Though certainly the actual sexual abuse is Master's worst crime, he is also guilty of microaggressions and subtle acts of control that are almost equally appalling, like making sexist comments about the way the female students speak or write, holding them up to scrutiny that the male students, presumably, are not subjected to. As an authority figure, Master blurs the lines between instruction and coercion at every turn.

For those who feel like this book might be too challenging due to personal past traumas, that is a valid and understandable concern. His Favorites is, essentially, a horror novel – permeated with suspense and dread and violent acts – and the fact that the events depicted are akin to the reality faced by millions of sexual abuse survivors makes the story infinitely more chilling.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2018, and has been updated for the July 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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