Kate Walbert’s new novel begins with a gripping premise. Fifteen-year-old Jo Hadley and her two best friends are drunk and tearing along in the night in a golf cart. It’s a moment of pure teenage exhilaration — until the golf cart flips, one of Jo’s friends is killed, and Jo’s comfortable life in small town Maryland comes to an end.
Jo is sent off to an exclusive New England boarding school, which contains the usual cast of misfits and mean kids. It’s hardly a healthy place to recover from trauma, but Jo’s mother and father have divorced, and neither seems to want to have much to do with their daughter.
The real problem, though, is an English teacher Jo refers to as “Master.” The name is a sly allusion to Emily Dickinson’s mysterious “Master Letters,” but nothing about this 34-year-old predator merits praise. He grooms Jo and others with bone-chilling insight, although the even deeper crime may be just how complicit everyone in this confined world is in Master’s abuse.
The book, which begins in the 1970s and concludes in the present, suggests there is some hope that Jo’s story might finally be heard, but of course the damage has long been done. His Favorites is very short, and one is grateful for Walbert’s economy with language. As good as her writing is, one doesn’t want to spend any more time in this painful world than necessary.