Last Updated on February 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224
Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is a metafictional novel told over the course of three interlinked narratives.
It’s the early 1980s, and Sarah and David are acting students at CAPA, or the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts. They meet under the tutelage of Mr. Kingsley, an intense and theatrical drama teacher who facilitates “trust exercises” over the course of his lessons. When the theater lights are turned off during one such exercise, the two teens meet by chance in the dark and wordlessly exchange a few small acts of intimacy.
During their summer break, Sarah and David enter into a relationship in earnest. Under the anonymizing haze of vacation, things go well. Eventually they begin sleeping together, sneaking out to meet in secret when neither of their houses is vacant. But when the academic year starts up again in the fall, it’s clear that the two of them have different ideas about the rules of their relationship. David shows up to school with a gift for Sarah, excited to give it to her in front of their classmates. Sarah is mortified and rejects the gift, telling him she’ll take it later. David, embarrassed, begins avoiding her entirely.
Shortly into the term, preparations begin for a new drama production. On one of these long, unsupervised days, Sarah and David meet in the hallway and sneak off to sleep together in secret. To her chagrin, he begins ignoring her afterward. Eventually, she sees him talking to a talented, pretty singing student and she realizes he’s begun to move on. In a lunchtime meeting with Mr. Kingsley, Sarah confesses everything—her still-burning love for David, her envy of his privilege, her exhaustion with her 6 a.m. weekend shifts at a nearby bakery.
When Sarah gets home, her mom tells her that Mr. Kingsley has called to suggest that Sarah quit her bakery job. Sarah’s mom is livid—not with the suggestion, but with the overreach. In her eyes, Mr. Kingsley is injecting himself into their family’s business. Sarah is angry, too. By calling her mom, Mr. Kingsley has broken the implicit trust between them. As Sarah contemplates the incident further, though, she begins to see it differently: he might have been making a play for some authority in her life.
Mr. Kingsley begins deliberately pairing Sarah and David for trust exercises shortly thereafter, and the attention of the group becomes too difficult for Sarah to bear. The relationship between the three of them—Sarah, David, and Mr. Kingsley—has noticeably shifted, and eventually, Mr. Kingsley stops inviting her to his office to talk. She begins to feel more and more alone at CAPA.
Sarah notices that Mr. Kingsley has begun inviting another student—Manuel—to his office in her stead. On opening night of the play, a cast party is held at the house Mr. Kingsley shares with his husband. Sarah finds Manuel taking clothes out of a wardrobe in Mr. Kingsley’s attic, and they argue. Manuel implies that he knows what Sarah did in the music room hallway during auditions, and she flees the party in tears.
During the play’s final performance, Sarah—now working in costumes—gives the clothes to Manuel’s parents, saying they’re a gift from Mr. Kingsley, who is his boyfriend. By spring term, Manuel is absent from the program. When pressed, Mr. Kingsley responds that he’s having “family issues.” Around this time, Sarah’s mother calls the principal to lodge a complaint against Mr. Kingsley.
Excitement begins to spread through CAPA about a group of students who will soon be visiting from England with a traveling production of Voltaire’s Candide. The troupe will all stay with CAPA students, and their two teachers will stay with Mr. Kingsley. When they arrive, they are boisterous and lively, and heavily dominate CAPA’s social scene. Their production is received terribly—after the first performance, the principal cancels the rest of the run.
Sarah bumps into Martin and Liam, the two acting teachers from England, and they invite her out for dinner. She joins them as Liam’s date, and Martin is with a student named Karen Wurtzel. When they’re finished eating, they go back to Mr. Kingsley’s house. Mr. Kingsley and his husband are out, and several cars full of students have pulled up. Sarah and Liam sleep together, and eventually, Mr. Kingsley comes home and kicks everyone out.
Sarah is the last to leave and has missed all her chances at a ride, so she winds up back at the nearby diner. She starts calling her friends’ houses and ultimately gets Elli Wurtzel—Karen’s mother—on the phone. Elli sends a cab for her, and Sarah winds up at the Wurtzel home, asleep in Elli’s bed.
After this scene, the narrative abruptly shifts. The first half of the book is actually, it turns out, a portion of a semiautobiographical novel written by Sarah—not her real name—who ultimately became an author. Readers are now placed in the 1990s, and Karen—not her real name, either—is waiting outside a bookshop for one of Sarah’s readings.
As Karen waits, it becomes clear that Sarah has taken some creative liberties with the characters in her novel. Karen, for example, has been reduced into a bit part. Instead of including the actual friendship between them, Sarah has taken elements from her relationship with Karen and turned them into new characters entirely.
From Karen, readers also learn that Karen and Sarah went to see Liam and Martin the summer after they all met. During this trip, Liam was enthusiastic, but Martin was absent altogether. Karen returned home without Sarah, realizing as she arrived home that she was pregnant with Martin’s child. Her father arranged for her to carry the baby to term at a Bible school, where she could then give it up for adoption.
As an adult, Karen is still friendly with David—they’ve both moved back to their hometown, where David is an underground theater director. When David receives word that Martin has been fired in disgrace after an allegation made by a student, he decides to support his old friend by staging Martin’s most recent play. Karen decides to audition and is excited to surprise Martin when he comes to fill the starring role—Karen will play a woman who shoots Martin’s character. Karen, the responsible one, handles the dangerous props: a gun and the blanks.
As the final scene unfolds, it’s implied that Karen has shot him for real. “You won’t die,” she tells him. “You just won’t be the same.”
The perspective shifts a final time. Claire Campbell, a young woman looking to find her birth mother, is reflecting on her visit with Robert Lord, the director of a prominent performing arts program.
Claire visits him hoping to find information about her mother, who she believes was a student. Lord asks if she might like to discuss it over dinner, and—though uneasy—she accepts. Her intuition turns out to be correct, and he makes an aggressive pass at her by shoving her hand down his pants after plying her with wine. When she rejects him, he tells her, “You’ve embarrassed me.” She apologizes and flees.