Review: The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton

Every time I read a book set in a high school I am amazed that anyone got out alive. High school wasn’t the best years of my life or anything, but compared to the murderous hatred factories everyone in fiction seems to attend, I clearly went to Merciful Paradise High. Or else I had my eyes shut throughout the entirety of my four years in high school. I do not rule this out as a (metaphorical) possibility.

The Rehearsal is about a girls’ school rocked by a teacher-student sex scandal, and a theatre school that makes the scandal the center of its end-of-year production. Characters use the shocking events to explore their own lives and to understand how grown-ups relate to each other.

As the title of the book implies, it’s a story about rehearsing: rehearsing a play, rehearsing sexuality, rehearsing in various roles for the sort of person you’re going to become. Over the first half of the book, you see the girls’ school students rehearsing different ways to frame the scandal in their lives, and in the second half, you see the theater students rehearsing how to frame it on a stage. The book sets up a number of quite elegant parallels and gets at something quite fundamental about adolescence: that thing that you are always doing of trying on personas to see if they’ll fit you, assuming you can discard them if they don’t, but then sometimes discovering you’re stuck with something you’ve tried because it’s all anyone can see of you now. This is done exceptionally well.

The Rehearsal is one of those books I admire but do not love. Eleanor Catton brilliantly portrays what she sets out to portray, the aforementioned trying-things-on aspect of adolescence. But there are a lot of things at the book that came off very contrived. Much of the dialogue was stilted and strange, and even when it was in the mouth of strange, stilted characters, it felt too fake even to be viable as words that someone fake would say.

The problem isn’t that people don’t talk that way, although they don’t; it’s that most of the characters spend most of their time talking like normal people. When someone starts talking out loud to someone else about notes burning into them like acid holes, it’s jarring that their interlocutor doesn’t say, “You talk weird, ya weirdo”. Do whatever you want with dialogue but either make it consistent or hang a lampshade on its inconsistency. Characters I wanted to believe in would say things like notes burn into them like acid holes, and abruptly they would feel like paper dolls instead of people. I wanted the characters to have an emotional foundation, but all they seemed to have was more and more personas to try on. No there there, as they say.

To steal a phrase from Simon (though he used it about Helen Oyeyemi and was — forgive me — totally wrong), too experimental for her boots!

Other reviews are here.

12 thoughts on “Review: The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton

  1. I read this and couldn’t decide if it was genius or went too far. I agree that it was too experimental” for me to love it, but I did appreciate the skill that went into it. I’m afraid I have to agree with Simon about Helen Oyeyemi – she is far too experimental for me!

  2. Often when I read your reviews I wish I still had access to your library, so that I could give books like this a quick once-over. Because your review intrigues me, and I know I probably wouldn’t like the book.

    Also,Evil Beth is hilarious. But I don’t know why Diana (much less Jo) bothered to rescue Charles.

  3. Fancy you remembering that expression! I’ll forgive you disagreeing with me for that šŸ˜‰ This definitely doesn’t sound up my street. Every now and then I want a book I can admire, but mostly I want books I can love.

  4. I hadn’t heard of this book before, but I do have to say that I am intrigued by it now! Though the dialogue is pretty craptastic, the plot sounds rather interesting, as do the observations that you make about it. I remember high-school being a pretty dismal experience, and think I could possibly relate to some of the things in this book. Very interesting and awesome review today, Jenny! I might have to check this one out of the library when I can!

  5. mumsy – I got this book as an early reviewer book through librarything. It’s an ARC version, and it was just too weird to give to anyone. I didn’t get it at all. If I could have even got as much as Jenny did, I might have liked it more. I never knew when it was the students or when it was the drama club. Anyway, I’d love to send it to you so I don’t have to have it here anymore. See if Jenny has my address; she should have my email somewhere.

  6. I loved paper dolls when I was a kid too. In fact, I had ALL the paper dolls at one time. I am not kidding. Paper dolls were a cheap and easy thing my mother could get me when I insisted on getting *something* at K-Mart, and it got to the point that they didn’t have any paper dolls that I didn’t already have. I kept them all in a giant box under my bed, with each paper doll family in its own old candy box from the grocery store where my mom worked, and the boxes were all different sizes, so they nested very neatly in each other and then in the bigger box. I have STRONG paper doll memories.

    OK, that was long for something so random and only related to a tag, but I had to share. This book is on my list but not in the absolute must-read section.

  7. I was sent a copy of this by a blog friend and haven’t got around to reading it yet. Like Mumsy, I’m intrigued to see how it will be. I’m not expecting to love it though as most reviews I’ve read have been mixed (and I’ve heard about that issue with dialogue before). But I’m still a bit curious.

  8. I have nothing to say about this book (and am definitely not going to read it), but I do love your tags. The evil Beth kidnapping Prince Charles, haha!

  9. I have this on my shelves, but have seen a lot of reviews from people who weren’t really convinced, so I haven’t been looking forward to picking it up.

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