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I Have Some Questions for You


I Have Some Questions for You

When is a mystery not a mystery --- or not exactly? Although billed as a thriller, Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel is really an “everything everywhere all at once” book, many-layered and hard to classify. It is also, for example, a coming-of-age story set in the hothouse atmosphere of a New England boarding school; an indictment of how crimes against young women become media fodder, both pre- and post-internet; and a riff on the way a vivid narrative often trumps truth.

That sounds like a lot for one book, but Makkai is up to it. A writer with impeccable literary credentials --- THE GREAT BELIEVERS was a finalist for both the National Book Award (2018) and the Pulitzer Prize (2019) --- she has made sure that I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU reads like a dream, combining the suspenseful allure of a whodunit with the visual dazzle of a film.

Bodie Kane is a 40-year-old film-studies professor with a podcast, “Starlet Fever,” about the exploitation of women in the movie industry. She attended Granby, a New Hampshire boarding school, in the mid-’90s; as the book begins, it's 2019, and at the invitation of her friend Fran, a faculty member, she’s going back for a two-week teaching stint. In Part I, Makkai toggles between the present-day narrative and flashbacks to Bodie’s troubled adolescence (with a dead brother and father and an errant mother, she is essentially without family) and the trauma of a murder committed during her senior year at Granby: Thalia Keith, Bodie’s junior-year roommate, was found dead in the swimming pool. The school’s Black athletic trainer, Omar Evans, was convicted and has been in prison ever since.

"Most thrillers conclude with definitive answers; I prefer the ambiguity and complexity of I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU. It’s a passionate cross-examination of the way we live now."

One of Bodie’s students, fascinated by the case, is convinced Omar didn’t do it, and a podcast reconsidering Thalia’s murder becomes her class project. Did Omar confess under police duress? Did the cops secure the crime scene properly and interview all possible suspects? Was Granby itself inclined to push for a quick solution for the sake of good PR? As Omar put it in an interview, they needed “someone like me”: An outsider, neither student nor faculty. Expendable.

These questions --- the entire novel, echoing the title, is essentially an interrogation of what happened to Thalia --- set off an obsession, a sort of hallucinatory rabbit hole, that dominates Bodie’s psyche for the whole time she is at Granby, and beyond.

A boarding-school mystery is a lot like a locked-room or stately-home mystery featuring a closed community where a stranger is likely to be noticed. In numbered scenarios dispersed throughout the book, Bodie examines how each possible culprit (including the boyfriend, the jealous girlfriend, the creepy guy lurking in the woods, and especially the Svengali-esque music teacher, Mr. Bloch) could have killed Thalia --- or, in one instance, how Thalia might have killed herself.

Fast-forward four years to Part II: A hearing on the case, partly fueled by the student podcast, is taking place in a town near Granby. This turn of events appears at first to promise a legal thriller-style denouement, with everything resolved in a theatrical courtroom moment. But wait: Although many of the “persons of interest” in Thalia’s death are conveniently gathered in this one locale, and Bodie and her students continue to probe for answers, Makkai refuses to tie up the story in a neat package. She has larger points to make.

In THE GREAT BELIEVERS, Makkai combined the personal and political against the catastrophic backdrop of the AIDS crisis. Here, too, she places her protagonist in broad context: #MeToo, institutional racism and ass-covering, and the victimization of women everywhere from boarding school to corporation, art gallery to Hollywood studio. The story is intercut with verbal montages that suggest how commonplace and repetitive the patterns of violence are: “It was the one where the young actresses said yes to a pool party and didn’t know…. It was the one where the woman who stabbed her rapist with scissors was the one who ended up in jail…. It was the one where the harasser ended up on the Supreme Court. It was the one where the rapist ended up on the Supreme Court. It was the one where the woman, shaking, testified all day on live TV and nothing happened.” Or, striking a more ominous note: “That was her comb in the ravine…. That was her blood in the bathroom…. This was her body, but she’s long gone.”

When the woman is young and pretty and white, like Thalia, her murder is even more likely to become the stuff of gossip and obsession and “true crime” TV shows like “Dateline.” “What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation?” Bodie asks herself. “Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own.” Already, in the early stages of her fixation on Thalia’s death, Bodie feels queasy about the way victims “become public property, subject to the collective imagination,” the way complete strangers invest themselves in someone else’s tragedy. She advises students to approach their investigations as open-endedly as possible, asking questions rather than positing answers. That, of course, is the very opposite of the fact-free prejudgments that are routine on social media.

These issues take on personal resonance when Bodie’s husband, Jerome (they are amicably separated but not yet divorced), is accused by a long-ago girlfriend of sexual abuse, and the “Twitter mob” piles on. Although the woman’s account sounds to Bodie like a lousy but consensual relationship --- she challenges the allegations in a surprisingly cogent drunken tweet --- she also becomes more and more doubtful about how well she remembers anyone: Jerome, Thalia, Omar.

Her down-to-earth friend Fran urges her to “stay off the internet, where everyone’s nuts.” But she can’t. She’s as wrapped up in the Thalia case as her students, maybe even more so, because for her it involves a shattering journey into the past. Bodie is finely drawn and likable: smart, compassionate, vulnerable, ironic (cf. the bitter running joke that she’s always asked who’s taking care of her kids while she’s at Granby; a male visiting professor with children would never have to field such a question). Yet because her confrontation with her adolescent self is so dramatic and her meltdown so extreme, she sometimes seems larger than life. It’s not easy to relate to a character whose mind is spiraling in a feverish hunt for the truth.

But what is the truth? That’s the real mystery at the heart of this book. Most thrillers conclude with definitive answers; I prefer the ambiguity and complexity of I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU. It’s a passionate cross-examination of the way we live now.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on March 3, 2023

I Have Some Questions for You
by Rebecca Makkai

  • Publication Date: February 20, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593490169
  • ISBN-13: 9780593490167