A while ago, I had been a bit underwhelmed by Red Leaves, by the same author, which is a very appreciated thriller, if the reviews and nominations for awards are to be trusted. However, I nevertheless decided to give a try to The Chatham School Affair, and I am very glad I did…

The story takes place in a small town in Cape Cod in 1926. Seven decades later, the now elderly narrator, Henry Griswald, tells the succession of events that took place within less than a year and the resulting tragedy in which he was involved, as a teenager.

He was then a school kid, not another boarder in Chatham School, a prestigious school for boys, but the son of its director. This position made him a loner, who read rather than played with peers who used to mistrust him. That summer of 26, he and his father had welcomed a young woman, Elizabeth Channing, as the new Arts teacher. From the beginning, Henry senses that this teacher is different from the others, and that she is also unlike any small-town woman he is accustomed to. She had been raised by a father who believed in living free, without constraints, and with him she had roamed the world. This life of adventures finds echoes in Henry’s feverish imagination, because he feels a prisoner at Chatham, and he despises his father, a man who believes in such values as duty and hard work.

When Miss Channing befriends Mr. Reed, a married teacher who has been injured in the war, and whose somber and passionate temper is attracted to Miss Channing’s aura of freedom and adventure. In his heart, Henry encourages the feelings both teachers have for each other, and he is the witness of many happy moments between them. Henry feels, more or less consciously, that he must be an adjuvant to their emerging feelings for each other, regardless of other considerations…

The Chatham School Affair is a very well-written, literate novel. It is also a fine psychological study of characters torn between desire and duty, hesitating between the trodden path and the road less traveled. Mr. Reed is a Byronic hero, a tormented and passionate Rochester-like figure. Miss Channing, a woman whose curse is her beauty and her free spirit is the typical female temptress, whose model in literature goes back to Eve. But the most complex character is certainly the narrator himself, a boy who has read too many adventure novels and whose partial vision, romantic expectations, and misunderstanding of the ways of the world will lead to errors and ultimately change the course of his life.

The Chatham School Affair could have been written by Ruth Rendell (when she is writing as Barbara Vine), and this is really a compliment. This novel is a masterpiece, and I will be looking for other novels by Thomas H. Cook…

Rating: 4,5/5