"The Best Kind of People" by Zoe Whittall
About a year ago, a billboard went up in my city featuring a pretty generic prison image – a pair of hands sticking through some bars, I think – and a somber message – “When you serve time, your family serves it with you.” It was up for several months, and right across the street from a coffee shop I stop at from time to time, so I saw it regularly and always had time to ponder the message – as I waited in the drive-thru line for some offensively foofy drink.
During the time this billboard was up – and since, really – I have, from time to time, thought about what it must be like for someone who has a loved one in jail.
But I never really, truly understood it until I read The Best Kind of People.
This book, set in a small, affluent town, centers primarily around the family of a previously well-respected teacher who, at the start of the book, is accused of sexual misconduct with students and, in short order, arrested.
At its core, The Best Kind of People had something serious going for it that so many books lack – amazing writing. I was not surprised when, upon preparing for this review, I learned that the author is also a poet. Her ability to pick just the right words was on the level of John Corey Whaley and John Green – two wordsmiths who hold my utmost esteem.
But it wasn’t just a way with words that set this book apart. It was also the strong character development – the strongest I have seen in quite some time.
This book had a large cast of characters but all felt distinct and unique.
Each character had his or her own motivations and personality and all received ample character development from the author. They all felt dynamic and round, ripe with possibility.
As a writer, it should be no surprise that my favorite character was the writer – Kevin, live-in boyfriend to the accused mans’ daughters’ boyfriends’ mother. Yeah. That was a mouthful.
Anyways, this character was bright and real and flawed in all the right ways. His writing process, described eloquently, felt entirely authentic. Not since Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds have I read a book containing such enjoyable insight into what it means to be a writer. And, unlike in Afterworlds, this depiction of a “writer” was decidedly authentic. It wasn’t the get-a-book-deal-and-suddenly-be-rich caricature of a writer. It was a realistic view of a literary one-hit-wonder of sorts, actively working to become, at the least, a two-hit-wonder.
And I retained this affinity for this character despite the fact that this character – like all characters in the book – did some pretty shitty things.
It takes a certain sort of bravery and definitely amazing strength as a writer, I think, to create these characters that are all flawed, and yet still somehow get the audience to care for – and even love – them. This is something that Paula Hawkins failed to do in Into the Water but something that Zoe Whittall has masterfully done here.
It was because there were so many different characters, each bringing his or her own life experience, that Whittall could so effectively and comprehensively look at these complex issues – specifically, the issue of consent and the ability to consent as well as the impact of leveling charges both on the accuser and on the family of the accused. Using these characters, she didn’t tell you how to feel about these things, she told you a story and let you arrive at your feelings independently.
Stellar writing and stunning characterization aside, this book probably resonated with me personally so well because I always considered myself so divorced from that message on that Starbucks adjacent billboard. I was secure in my station and confident that nothing major would change.
As I took my caramel macchiato and shifted my car into drive, I felt authentically bad for those people. The kind of people who would know someone in jail. The kind of people I wasn’t. I was, in my estimation, the best kind of people – immune to those types of worries.
I was – I am – the Woodbury’s (though with a much less ostentatious home).
Fortunately for me, the reminder that I am just as vulnerable as anyone else came in the form of a literary lesson, not a personal life experience.
I recommend this book without reservation and give it a resounding 5 out of 5 cocktails.
Given my enjoyment of this book, I will undoubtedly be on the lookout for Whittall’s future works. Are there any new authors you’ve discovered this year who have made their way onto your must-read list? Tell me about it in the comments.
And I just keep reading. Want to see what's on my reading list, now? Check here