Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Fifteen at the beginning of the novel, Sarah is an aspiring actress studying at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA). She’s an edgy, punky loner, and she is somewhat secretive about her personal life—she hides her weekend job from her classmates, and when she falls in love with David, she hides that relationship, too. When things don’t work out, she turns to Mr. Kingsley for comfort. Later, she begins a relationship with Liam.
The first half of the book is told from her perspective, detailing her struggle to cope with the breakup and the social environment at CAPA. When the narrative shifts to Karen’s perspective, we learn that Sarah ultimately becomes a writer. The first half of the novel is a portion of her semiautobiographical novel, and we learn that she has taken some creative license with the events of the past. Karen also informs us that Sarah isn’t her real name—in fact, none of the names we’ve learned are real, although we never learn the alternatives.
David, also fifteen, is a fellow acting student at CAPA. He is Sarah’s primary love interest through much of the first half of the story. He’s cultured and well-traveled, and lives in one of the nicest houses in the area.
In Karen’s narrative, we learn that David eventually moves back to their hometown and becomes a theater director. He and Karen maintain an ongoing friendship, which she primarily attributes to nostalgia on his part—even in adulthood, David is still living in the glow of the past. He finds it especially hard to cope with the allegations against Martin and decides to stage one of Martin’s plays as a show of support for his old friend.
In Sarah’s narrative, Karen Wurtzel is a stoic, serious CAPA student. Toward the end of the story, Karen enters into a relationship with Martin, a forty-year-old teacher from England.
In Karen’s narrative, we learn more: Karen and Sarah are at one point very close, and the two eventually travel together to visit Liam and Martin in England. When they get there, Sarah is greeted enthusiastically by Liam. Martin is nowhere to be found, and Karen goes home alone. She realizes when she gets there that she’s pregnant with his baby, and she spends two terms at a Bible school before giving the baby up for adoption.
When we meet her again in her early thirties, she’s been through a great deal of therapy and prefers to make sense of the world by categorizing it. She’s sensible and matter-of-fact, finding great comfort in organization and etymology. She maintains an easy friendship with David, despite the knowledge that his interest in her is primarily based on her ability to connect him with his past. Despite years of therapy, she isn’t without anger: when she costars in David’s play with Martin, she injures him onstage.
From Karen, we also learn that Sarah has minimized her friendship with Karen in the novel by creating three new characters that embody the broader characteristics of their relationship: Joelle Cruz, Pammie, and Julietta.
Mr. Kingsley is a charismatic and theatrical drama teacher at CAPA. Through trust exercises, he forces students to bare their innermost thoughts in front of each other. He often takes a special interest in his students based on what they reveal about themselves during these sessions, and he makes a habit of inviting certain students to enjoy lunch with him in his private office.
He shows himself to be kind, caring, and supportive to his students, but also to be manipulative and overly forward...
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with them. Sarah’s mother ultimately files a complaint against him because of his overreach.
In Sarah’s narrative, we’re told that he lives with his husband. Through Claire’s narrative, however, we are encouraged to consider that Sarah may have considerably obscured this character in particular.
Martin is the older of the two visiting teachers from England. He begins a relationship with Karen while he’s in the US but disappears when she goes to visit him at home.
In Karen’s narrative, we learn that Martin has just been removed from his position following allegations of misconduct. David decides to stage Martin’s play, which brings Karen and Martin together again. He’s visibly surprised at first but acts deeply enthusiastic about their reunion. Despite her outwardly friendly reception, she injures him onstage on opening night.
Liam is the younger of the British teachers—twenty-four at the time he appears in Sarah’s story. They start a relationship, and she visits him in England on the trip with Karen. His interest in Sarah is much greater than her interest in him, and they break up during the visit.
Sarah’s mom is very suspicious of Mr. Kingsley’s overreach into the lives of his students, and she ultimately calls the school to lodge a formal complaint against him.
In Karen’s narrative, we learn that Sarah’s mom has an unspecified disability that, for some reason, Sarah chooses not to include.
In Sarah’s narrative, Joelle is Sarah’s former close friend. Their relationship has ups and downs, nearly ending over the summer that Sarah and David begin seeing each other.
Karen later informs us that Joelle is a construction based on her friendship with Sarah: “the intimacy between Karen and Sarah, disavowed and relocated onto a historical person very much like Joelle with whom Sarah did not have an actual friendship” (134).
Manuel is a student at CAPA who makes very little impact on others, keeping to himself and wearing ratty, disheveled clothes. After he impresses the entire school with his audition for the musical, Manuel begins to wear expensive Armani shirts. Sarah believes they’re coming from Mr. Kingsley, who has taken an interest in him.
In Karen’s narrative, we learn that Manuel is an amalgamation of three other students who have been condensed to better serve Sarah’s story.
Julietta and Pammie
Per Karen’s narrative, Julietta is a side character Sarah invents to embody “the way in which Karen’s Christianity was admired,” while Pammie is created to show “the way in which Karen’s Christianity was found laughable” (134).
Elli, Karen’s mom, is fun-loving and gregarious. When Sarah gets stuck at the diner after the party with Martin and Liam, Elli sends a cab for her and takes her in for the night.
Karen’s dad is strict but reliable. When she finds herself pregnant and stranded in England with no money, he brings her home and arranges for her to spend a few terms at Bible school.
Claire Campbell is a woman in her mid-twenties who, in the present day, is searching for her birth mother. Her search leads to Robert Lord, and she believes that her mother was a student in his acting program when she gave Claire up for adoption. She is disheartened when Robert Lord makes a pass at her.
Robert Lord is the director of a prominent acting program, and Claire visits him in the book’s final chapter to inquire about her birth mother. He invites her to discuss the matter over dinner, gives her alcohol, and shoves her hand down the front of his pants. She rejects him and runs away, to his anger.
After he dies, Claire learns that allegations made by a former student have caused plans to name a building after him to be withdrawn.