The Headmaster’s Wife is short enough to almost be considered a novella, though the story is too complex to be considered as such. The book is one of the saddest I’ve ever read, but not in that traditional way where, for example, you become attached to a character who then dies of cancer. The Headmaster’s Wife is perhaps more poignant than sad, because the characters are so unable to face the unhappiness that has taken over their lives.
The story takes place at a fictional private prep school in Vermont. Arthur Winthrop is the headmaster, as his father was before him. The novel begins when he is found walking naked in Central Park in NYC.
Out of the gate, Winthrop becomes interested – obsessed, really – with one of his students. It’s a distressing story line, and one I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading. But at the end of Part One, something happens that made me literally say out loud, “Oh my God.”
Greene’s novel is written in three parts; the first part is narrated first person by Winthrop. The next two parts are told in third person, and what you learn in Parts Two and Three at least make an attempt to explain Part One. It’s an interesting format for a novel.
I really wanted to like the book a bit more than I did. As I said in the beginning, Greene’s writing is beautiful. I think what troubled me is that I just couldn’t come to empathize – or really even sympathize – with any of the characters. While not necessarily unbelievable, they just didn’t draw my sympathy.
Having said this, I do, in fact, recommend the book, especially for a book club. The discussion, I think, would be so interesting and thought-provoking.
Mr. Greene has been involved in academia in his interesting and varied professional life. His understanding of the politics involved in the area of education – and particularly East Coast educational facilities – makes the book more believable.
I recommend you give The Headmaster’s Wife a try.