Imagine yourself standing in front of a mirror with two friends standing alongside you. Now imagine the mirror cracking into dozens of pieces, barely holding together. The faces become distorted, broken into dozens of pieces and unrecognizable. That, gentle reader, is the best description I can conjure of what happens in The Headmaster’s Wife. Plot-wise, it is the literary equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
On page one we meet Arthur Winthrop. Like his father before him, he is the Headmaster of the elite Lancaster School in Vermont. It is a world of knowledge, beauty and order, in which Arthur leads a circumscribed life with an “explicit sense of primogeniture.” He grew from good boy to good man, and became a good teacher who is now a good headmaster. But when the book begins he is having a very bad day, having been found wandering naked in Central Park on a snowy afternoon. Soon he is under interrogation by the police. As readers we are only slightly less confused than Arthur, but not so confused that we stop reading. In fact, we cannot stop reading. This is a “turn off the phone and don’t answer the door” kind of book. I was hooked from the first page, and a few pages later you could not have pried it from my hands. I devoured it in four hours.
Much of the book’s first half is told in Arthur’s voice. This is particularly eerie because prior to the incident in Central Park he’s become obsessed with Betsy, a Lancaster student “still learning to molt into adulthood.” For this “old man in his tweed and his school tie” Betsy’s youth is irresistible and he believes she will never be more beautiful than she is at this moment. There is a serious creep factor to the passages in which he dreams of Betsy day and night, recklessly stalks her in every corner of the Lancaster campus, and ultimately befriends her. Their relationship grows ever more complicated and unnerving and the reader begins to wonder if we have a Lolita situation developing. Do not be surprised to find yourself flinching at what is on the page. When Russell Hurley enters their world things go even further south. How can Arthur’s behavior fail to ruin everyone’s lives? Read on.
The Attentive Reader Will Note: Greene is an elegant writer and there is much literary pleasure to be found in the world of academia he creates. But things are not always as they appear, so read carefully. And keep in mind Duchamp’s work of art, as well as the title of the novel. That’s where the story is.