Susan Choi’s Award-Winning ‘Trust Exercise’ Incites the Perils of Adolescence in a Society Struggling with Authenticity
Adolescence is one of the most complicated stages of life. That formative period when you’re not quite a child and not quite an adult can be confusing as well as painful. In National Book Award for Fiction winner, Trust Exercise, Susan Choi deftly navigates the turbulent waters of adolescence, the lessons we are forced through and the marks these leave behind when we are so eager, though still so thoroughly unprepared, for a full-blown adult life.
Trust Exercise is split into three chapterless parts. In the first part, we’re introduced to Sarah, a 14-year-old girl who has the privilege of being accepted into one of her area’s most prestigious drama schools, the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, or CAPA. We also meet David, who attends the school; who becomes her on-again, off-again boyfriend; whom she could never quite get started with; whom she never quite gets over and who becomes the catalyst for a lot of her impulsive decisions.
Sarah proceeds to enlighten us about the classes at CAPA, what they learn and how it applies to life as both worlds become more and more entangled and messy, as these teenagers seek independence but also refuge. They begin leaning into one of their teachers, Mr. Kingsley, who teaches a class called Trust Exercises. In this class, exercises are performed to encourage the students to feel more comfortable in their own bodies as well as with each other. It encourages the loss of sense of personal space and inhibitions. It prompts the students to be as in the moment and as authentic as they can possibly be.
Mr. Kingsley, with a prevalent background in theatre and an easy, magnetic, undisturbed manner, is revered by his students. They see him as “one of them,” someone who “gets it.” He becomes that breath of fresh air to the students, often holding closed-door, heart-to-heart sessions with a chosen set who may be considered “risk” cases. Through him, we will see the complexity of a teenager’s willingness to be seen and understood at their level.
Then the second part cuts in, 12 years into the future. A former CAPA student known as Karen – a character we only see in passing in the first part because it revolves primarily around the tempestuous romance between Sarah and David — lets us know that her name isn’t Karen, but for the sake of continuity, she must keep using it. Karen, as it turns out, is the name given to her in Sarah’s biased version of the truth in the novel she’s just published.
It’s at this point that Trust Exercise reveals its true design. Suddenly, halfway through the book, everything is up in the air and we’re no longer sure what to believe. But as Karen begins her own narration, revealing her own side of the story and the actual sequence of events, we begin to realize that the story is not about who we think it is or what we think it’s about. We now begin to understand what was really happening behind the enchantment and elevated teen drama of Sarah’s narrative.
As we make our way through the first part of the book, we sense that there’s something perverse going on that we can’t quite put our finger on because we cannot see it. We suspect it and yet we read on, silencing our own paranoia because it’s our nature to trust the narrative. We don’t usually stop to wonder about the individual experience of the side characters.
With Trust Exercise, Choi takes the concept of trust and turns it into something tangible, breaking it into bite-sized pieces that are easier for the mind to digest, prompting us to explore the questions: How well do we really know people and how much do people really reveal about themselves? How much of what we are is rehearsed? How much of what we are is misinterpreted because of our own personal acts of deflection? How much of what we choose to see is based on prejudiced assumptions?
Trust Exercise is a clever, mind-blowing narrative that forces us to consider the fragility of perception and trust. Choi takes us by the hand through the darkness to point to and reveal all the places where we, sometimes blindly, place our trust, subsequently causing us to question what it means to really know someone and the many ways in which nothing is ever truly what it seems.