Friday, July 9, 2010


Anita Shreve

In 2005, at Milton Academy near Boston, a notorious sex party took place. The event was videoed and broadcast, mishandled by school authorities, and sensationalized by the press. Two books and a magazine article have been written about the incident.

The first book, Restless Virgins, is non-fiction, written by two graduates of Milton Academy, and based on interviews with those involved. It claims to show that the incident represented a new pattern of behaviour among high school students.

The magazine article, Love Actually, is written by Caitlin Flanagan in the June 2010 issue of the Atlantic and is partly a review of the novel by Anita Shreve, Testimony, published in 2008.

Flanagan's interest is in the response to sex and romance by modern teenage girls. Along with the authors of Restless Virgins, she feels that there is a disturbing twist to the perennial boyfriend quest, which she calls, "the hook-up culture." Flanagan found the conclusions of Restless Virgins unsatisfactory, and recommends instead the novel, Testimony.

Testimony, however, does not address the issue of the hook-up culture that so dismays Flanagan. It places the event in its community and tries to show what kind of teenagers take part in sex parties, the entitlement culture of elite sports teams, the pressure of the home environment, the betrayal of responsibility by lax supervision by those in a position of responsibility, and the tragic repercussions of the event on the young people involved, on those who loved and supported them, and on the whole school community.

Rather than depicting the key players as caught up in a teenage sub-culture, Shreve gives the background and reflections of each of them and shows that each case was special. The girl in question is shown as non-typical of her classmates, recognized by her room-mate and the older boys as having different priorities and interests from an average girl her age.

Of the six boys involved, two recognized the danger and left the party, one was nineteen and almost out of his teenage years, one was reacting to the recent discovery that his mother was having an affair with the school principal, one took the video but did not otherwise participate, and one was so drunk that he acted out of character. We conclude that the event and the participants were out of the ordinary.

I would not bother to read another book by Anita Shreve myself. Although she is a competent writer, Testimony is more in the young-adult category. But I would strongly recommend that the book be studied in high school classes.

The subject matter is very relevant to teenagers, and the format, with each chapter being a different voice, rather like a reality television show, makes the book easy to break up into segments for discussion. High school years can be hard ones and teenagers need guidance and open discussion to lead them through the pertinent moral issues examined in this book.

Shreve is candid about the power of sex but also reassuring that, although they happen, wild sex parties are not the norm in high school. Given Shreve's perspective, it seems odd that Flanagan recommends this book as an insight into the hook-up culture. But its study could well give positive direction to adolescents dealing with the reality.