A review of Testimony by Anita Shreve

Reviewed by Sara Hodon

by Anita Shreve
Back Bay Books
Paperback: 352 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0316067348, May 5, 2009

Taut. Lyrical. Elegant. These three words are often used to describe Anita Shreve’s books, and her latest release, Testimony, is no exception.

In Testimony, a sex scandal at a New England boarding school is about to hit the press. Those affected by the episode—among them, the school’s headmaster, a favored scholarship student, a star basketball player and his mother, who is wrestling with her own temptations, and a troubled girl on an endless search for love and acceptance—are given the opportunity to relate their own thoughts and feelings about the scandal. Shreve uses various points of view for each character to tell their own story, which adds an interesting dimension of tension and consequence to the plot. She is a master at creating a sense of remove from the events in the plot, which can often make it difficult for readers to feel a connection with the characters. But for the most part, that sense of remoteness seems to work in Testimony. It seemed as though first person point of view may have worked a bit better for headmaster Mike Bordwin’s sections, rather than third person, as he is a multi-faceted character with more than his share of inner turmoil going on. In addition to the scandal, Bordwin is dealing with a strain in his marriage and an unexplainable attraction to one of the students’ mothers. It would have been interesting to get inside his head to hear his own take on those events, rather than watch him from a distance as Shreve forces us to do.

Whether through Shreve’s third-person narration or their own, the characters reveal enough back story to make them relatable and well-rounded individuals within the story’s context. Shreve is able to show the chain of events that led to this particular scandal, and how every single character in the book somehow contributed to what happened. The full account of the scandal is not explained until the final chapter, but by then a broader picture of that night is explained and readers are able to make their own decisions as to who was responsible for the scandal.

Shreve has the uncanny ability to capture the delicacy of the human experience. Many of her novels focus on how a decision made in a split second can alter the course of people’s lives forever. In Testimony particularly, she does an excellent job of showing how no one person ever carries the guilt or bears the consequence of an event such as the scandal in the book. Those directly involved, their families, their school, and indeed, the entire community felt the impact of the scandal and its aftermath. This is particularly noteworthy in our scandal- and media-crazed society—when event such as the one in Testimony take place and are exploited, it’s easy to lose sight of those who are truly affected. By telling the story through multiple points of view, Shreve reinforces the ripple effect that takes place after any life-altering experience.

About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a part-time freelance writer who resides in Northeast Pennsylvania and is currently at work on her first novel. Reading and writing are her two favorite activities, and she is not shy about recommending a good read to others! Her work has appeared in History, Today’s Caregiver, SpecialLiving, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine. A proud graduate of Lebanon Valley College, Sara is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.