The Headmaster's Wife begins on an early winter morning, with a man walking into New York City's Central Park. He is trying to remember a time when he and his wife and son were in this same place. The memory is elusive; he can’t quite recapture it. He takes off his hat, then all his clothes, including his shoes, and continues his walk. He is taken to a police station and asked what happened. He says he must begin at the beginning, and he does.
Arthur Winthrop is the headmaster of Lancaster School, an elite Vermont prep school, like his grandfather and father before him. His son, Ethan, chose not to follow the family plan, not to go to Yale, not to become head of the school. Instead, he joined the army right out of high school. Arthur's wife, Elizabeth, is drifting away from him, interested only in tennis and sitting in Ethan's room, worrying.
Arthur tells the police about his obsession with a student, Betsy, their sexual encounters and her leaving him for Russell Hurley, a handsome basketball player her own age. Arthur plants alcohol under Russell's dorm bed, arranges a room search and has him expelled.
At this point, the policeman interviewing Arthur brings in a man he introduces as an attorney. Arthur hasn't asked for one, but the man says he is Russell Hurley--and everything turns upside down.
The reader knows from Thomas Christopher Greene's clever foreshadowing that something monumental has happened--but only midway through do we learn what it is. When the story turns, it is as if a new book is being written, but such is not the case. We slowly understand what really happened and why, and all the questions about how Arthur could be so foolish about a student are answered, among many more important things.
The story behind The Headmaster's Wife is unusual. Greene (Envious Moon) began writing it in a neonatal care unit when his second daughter was born prematurely, and the book is dedicated to her memory. At the same time, Greene was in the process of founding the Vermont College of Fine Arts; the loss of a child and a close association with a school provide the backdrop for a story that examines grief, love, marriage, madness and hope. Before you pick up this book, clear the decks--because you will read it in one sitting. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: Greene (Envious Moon) has written a straightforward-seeming narrative about a headmaster making foolish choices that morphs into something entirely different, poignant and eloquent.