For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing is a thriller set in an expensive American private school, hot-housing the children of wealthy parents for admission to top universities.
Many of its characters follow the philosophy of the title, acting towards others in a way that might seem harsh in the short term, only because there is promise of long term gain. This could be as straightforward as a teacher pushing a student to work hard at school to improve their job prospects in adult life. But much more bizarre scenarios then develop, where the present pain increases and long term gain is harder to fathom. It’s like the religious idea that you suffer here on Earth to prepare you for a better life in the hereafter, when it is often difficult to see how the suffering is actually helping. This parallel is clear in the character of Teddy Crutcher, a quietly insane English teacher. Crutcher deals out arbitrary retribution to students – and fellow teachers – who he feels would benefit from a few life lessons. One of his gentler bits of educational suffering involves giving his class the job of reading Danté’s The Divine Comedy, a decision which student Zach Ward reflects bitterly upon…
The Divine Comedy? A punishment – Zach knows that. Or maybe a judgment, given how much he hates everyone. ‘I have allotted four weeks in total for The Divine Comedy,’ Crutcher says. ‘Which means you should finish the first book, Inferno, by next week. Pay particular attention to who ends up in each ring of hell and why. Hypocrites, for example. Or thieves.’ Maybe that’s it, Zach realizes. Maybe Crutcher thinks of himself as a god, and it’s his job to punish people.
The story is told through the eyes of many characters, both amongst teaching staff and students. Each person is trying to see the complete picture. Some are even trying to control the complete picture. But nobody has this omniscience, not Teddy Crutcher, not his persecuted student Zach Ward, or the evangelical maths teacher Frank Maxwell; not even the reader, who sees bits and pieces as the story unfolds. What is the big plan? If we are suffering, what is the reason behind it?A thriller is a good place to deal with such questions, since thrillers rely on doubt as much as revelation to keep you reading. They show that not knowing the plan can be as compelling as finding answers.
I thought this was an excellent novel. There’s a light and humorous tone, despite the murderous subject matter. The many points of view were well handled. And it has this interesting theme about people going through trials for some greater good, which is both a delusion and a kind of bizarre reality.