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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Rehearsal

Eleanor Catton

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To purchase The Rehearsal

Title: The Rehearsal
Author: Eleanor Catton
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 309 pages
Availability: The Rehearsal - US
The Rehearsal - UK
The Rehearsal - Canada
The Rehearsal - India
La répétition - France
Die Anatomie des Erwachens - Deutschland
La prova - Italia
El ensayo general - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : technically very accomplished; fine novel of adolescence

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 20/7/2009 Adrian Turpin
The Guardian A 17/7/2009 Justine Jordan
The Independent A- 4/8/2009 Jonathan Gibbs
New Zealand Listener A- 2/8/2008 Louise O'Brien
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 13/6/2010 Adam Ross
Publishers Weekly . 15/3/2010 .
The Telegraph . 5/7/2009 Lucy Beresford
The Telegraph . 24/7/2009 Lorna Bradbury
TLS . 7/8/2009 Lidija Haas

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very impressed, especially by the writing

  From the Reviews:
  • "But it is the inventiveness with which Catton plays on these themes, not the themes themselves, that makes this book so engaging. It would be tempting to call it experimental, if that word didnít suggest writing that is stodgy and self-indulgent. To the contrary, The Rehearsal is controlled, elegant and utterly readable, even at its most slippery. (...) The Rehearsal should collapse into a pile of postmodern mush as it starts to revel in its own artifice. That it doesnít is testament to Cattonís precocious ability." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "This astonishing debut novel from young New Zealander Eleanor Catton is a cause for surprise and celebration: smart, playful and self-possessed, it has the glitter and mystery of the true literary original. Though its impulses and methods can only be called experimental, the prose is so arresting, the storytelling so seductive, that wherever the book falls open it's near-impossible to put down." - Justine Jordan, The Guardian

  • "New Zealander Eleanor Catton's masterstroke in this remarkable first novel is to immerse herself in the psychological hall of mirrors that is the teenage mind, but to apply an anthropological precision to what she finds there. (...) It's a supremely confident piece of writing, and although the dryness of its characters and lack of real plot may put some readers off, the clarity of its thought and language make it a definite contender for debut of the year." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "As an intellectual exercise of exploration and experimentation, The Rehearsal succeeds brilliantly. It is original and thought provoking. But the cost of that success is the readerís emotional involvement. The novel relentlessly reminds us of the charactersí status as fictional constructs, as tools for the play of ideas, and does it so well that they are never more than characters to us. The novel succeeds in foregrounding the techniques and manners of fictionality, thus there is no possibility of empathy with or even sympathy for the characters." - Louise O'Brien, New Zealand Listener

  • "Nonlinear and occasionally tricky to follow, itís a series of plays within plays; and as in a piece of experimental theater, its characters often break mid-dialogue to confess in startlingly honest asides or snatch at one anotherís thoughts, with lighting and music added during moments of high drama or hushed intimacy. The playís not just the thing, itís everything. (...) Thereís plenty to enjoy here, including Cattonís keen insights into high schoolís herd mentality and the remarkable set pieces in which the young actors are put through the paces by their tutors. It doesnít always come off." - Adam Ross, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It's a good piece of writing, but not an especially enjoyable novel." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The Rehearsal is about identity and anxiety and longing. Which brings me to Cattonís prose style, which likes to link three adjectives in a way which starts as smart and self-aware and anchoring, but which quickly becomes repetitive and annoying and (as you can see) infectious. Without them, the narrative, with its clever borrowing of stagecraft such as soliloquies and stage directions, would really swing." - Lucy Beresford, The Telegraph

  • "What is striking is the peculiarity of the dialogue, which is stripped of social propriety so that characters say what they are thinking about, or fantasising about, and others fail to respond. (...) Though there can be something of the creative-writing exercise about this, the novel is elevated by the fresh quality of the writing" - Lorna Bradbury, The Telegraph

  • "Cattonís writing is remarkably assured. The cleverness of the concept and structure -- which could otherwise have risked archness -- is balanced by the charactersí intensity of emotion. Part of the pleasure of reading The Rehearsal is the feeling of anticipation Catton ascribes to all theatre audiences: waiting for something to go wrong, for the illusion to be spoiled. At times, changes of tone, posture or stage lighting are described, so that the reader is both absorbed in the story and constantly aware of the effects of performance. Yet the novelís real achievement is in its creation of a self-sustaining world." - Lidija Haas, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The story underlying The Rehearsal is that a teenage girl, Victoria, has an affair with her music teacher, Mr. Saladin. She and her slightly younger sister, Isolde, attend Abbey Grange ("colloquially known as either Scabby Grange or Abbey Grunge, depending on your mood or point of view"). Their affair looms over the entire book, but Victoria and especially Mr. Saladin remain largely in the background.
       Among the characters in the foreground: are Isolde; Julia, one of Victoria's classmates; their (female) saxophone teacher; and Stanley, a young drama student at the Institute by the school. The novel proceeds in quick bits and spurts, the odd-numbered chapters further subdivided into short sections titled according to days of the week, the even-numbered ones subdivided into short sections titled by month -- and not always sequentially (chapter ten, for example, consists of, in order, the sections: June, July, September, July, August, June, August, August, August).
       Several overlapping stories emerge. There is Stanley, auditioning for the Institute and then his experiences during his first year there. He befriends Isolde -- but since he is technically adult and Isolde below the age of consent their relationship puts him in a difficult position. Isolde tries to deal with what her sister has done, and also befriends Julia -- who, it is widely suspected, is a lesbian. The nosy sax teacher sticks her head in far too many things. There is a tragic (but not central) death.
       Various acting exercises at the Institute are described, culminating in the "end-of-year devised theater project", which is left entirely up to the students and which their teachers have nothing to do with until the day of the performance -- when the teachers: "want to be surprised. And shocked." The students choose the juicy story from next door: the affair between Victoria and Mr. Saladin (with Stanley only figuring out much too late that Isolde is Victoria's sister).
       Catton does not do the simple and obvious, with either the play or the affair; indeed, just as even with the death that occurs, these significant events bubble up but are just part of the everyday presented here. Other figures one might imagine to be significant, such as Victoria and Isolde's parents, remain largely off-scene, too (only Stanley's father repeatedly pops up in awkward father-son meetings), while for example the adult figures at the acting school are known simply by their titles -- Head of Acting, Head of Movement.
       The Rehearsal is largely about teenagers trying to establish their identities, trying to figure out who and what they are, and what their place in relation to others is; it is, very much, about trying on roles. The Institute is a place where this is more manifest, yet even here the students are not just learning how to take on theater-roles but are trying out the roles of what kind of drama students they want to be.
       The novel as a whole is one of characters playing different roles -- and generally also being very aware of the artificiality of their own behavior (and that of everyone around them). So, for example, at one point Julia analyzes:

I was thinking about what a comfort these things are, these textbook methods, precisely because they need no decoding, no translation. Once, a long time ago, you could probably bite your lip and it would mean, I am almost overcome with desiring you. Now you bite your lip and it means, I want you to see that I am almost overcome with desiring you, so I am using the plainest and most universally accepted signal I can think of making you see. Now it means, Both of us know the implications of my biting my lip and what I am trying to say. We are speaking a language, you and I together, a language that we did not invent, a language that is not unique to our uttering. We are speaking someone else's lines. It's a comfort.
       Even the students who are not at the acting school -- like Julia -- find all the world's a stage and that they are playing roles, "speaking someone else's lines". The novel shows how they try to navigate that -- both falling into the roles and fighting against them.
       Beyond that, too:
     "You all want to be damaged," the saxophone teacher says suddenly. "All of you. That is the one quality all my students have in common. That is your theme and variation: you crave your own victimhood absolutely.
       At times Catton seems to be trying -- and juggling -- too much, but for the most part she manages to keep everything impressively in the air. It is a lot to take in and follow, but she manages to build up an impressive larger story. At times her efforts may appear to wilful, but Catton repeatedly takes what is very conventional -- beginning with the underlying story -- and presents it in creatively unconventional ways; it works very well, and makes for a consistently intriguing (if occasionally frustrating) read.
       Technically very accomplished -- the writing is very strong, the presentation, though not straightforward, makes for a novel that feels always simmering -- The Rehearsal is an insightful take on adolescence. At times one might wish Catton to be more direct or focused, but ultimately her tangle of stories feels more true-to-life and is certainly effective.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 September 2012

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The Rehearsal: Reviews: Eleanor Catton: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Eleanor Catton was born in Canada in 1985 and grew up in New Zealand.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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