Kate Walbert’s recent book, His Favorites, is a compact 149 page novella that seems to be a direct outgrowth of the #MeToo movement, a work consciously addressed to women who have experienced sexual abuse from those in power over them. But linking the book to current events does an injustice to the artistry of this exquisitely constructed work. Ms. Walbert embeds her story of sexual exploitation in adolescence and focuses on a teenager who is abused by her popular English teacher in a prestigious boarding school.

Jo Hadley’s story begins abruptly. To outward appearances, she is a typical adolescent more concerned with how she looks, having a good time, and hanging out with friends than reading the Great Books. Suddenly, while driving a golf cart around the course on a lazy summer night, a close friend is violently thrown over side, strikes a tree head first, and dies instantaneously.
Only later do we learn about the profound impact this accident has had on Joy and her family. Joy is forced to transfer out of her neighborhood public school and enroll in the Hawthorne School. But Joy is clearly talented, adapts quickly to her new circumstances, and is placed in a special writing program for gifted students. There she falls under the tutelage of a charismatic 34-year old teacher, called Master. He has a reputation for running an irreverent, highly charged classroom and is always trailed by a legion of admiring young women from his advanced writing class.

Jo’s horrific s encounter with Master in his residential suite is followed by a failed effort to report Master’s behavior to the school leadership. We learn about Jo’s parents and the disintegration of her family after the accident. We meet her schoolmates. One is an attractive member of Master’s retinue who resurfaces several years after graduation in New York and who still seethes with resentment at her treatment by Master. A second classmate is musically gifted but far less stylish than the students in Master’s English seminar. She becomes the target of a cruel hazing prank that reverberates in Joy’s mind with the passage of time. As the book reaches its conclusion, the context in which Joy is relating her story is unexpectedly revealed, which casts all of her recollections in an entirely new light.  The storyline is disjointed and the vantage point shifts frequently. But the narrative is gripping and novella’s structure is exquisitely built on apt description and poignant allusions to other works in the literary canon including the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles and The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe.


There are books that are expressions of their time. In some cases, books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle have influenced public opinion and altered the course of history. One could read His Favorites in this light. The book is certainly timely and the disturbing story sounds like something you could have read in New York Magazine.

I would challenge anyone to read this book and not be moved to think more deeply on how relationships between people can be manipulated and abused because of hierarchical structures of power. Yes, His Favorites, is a book of the moment. But its message is timeless. Interestingly, I think His Favorites may be especially useful to physicians in training.  The artistry of the narrative may be especially relevant to learning how doctors should interact with patients over the course of treatment.

Jo Hadley, the central character in His Favorites, is the victim of sexual abuse by a popular English teacher in a prestigious boarding school. The teacher is nearly 20 years older than her. Clearly there are many layers to this traumatic episode, some alluded to in the text and others merely inferred. It starts with the immediate and brutal assault on her body. On top of this is the shame at trying and failing to convince the school leadership that the teacher had taken advantage of his position of power to violate her. Then there is the agonizing concern that maybe she was complicit in the relationship out of a desire to succeed in his class and to leverage his perverse affection to increase her chances of admission to an Ivy League college.

There is an unspoken anxiety that maybe her silence will protect the teacher, allow him to continue to teach at the school, and enable him to attack and harm other women. Finally, there is the shame that she did not have the courage to step up even after she was no longer in the immediate thrall of the teacher. Ms Walbert’s storyline is fractured into many narrative planes that intersect unpredictably, that move forward and then circle back, that introduce other characters and events into the main account of abuse with little explanation. In fact, this disjointed perspective perfectly captures how patients experience disease. Illness starts with a physical breach in health, suddenly or more insidiously. Then there is the pain and discomfort linked to treatment. There is ever changing anxiety about how and why they have gotten ill and embarrassment created by dependency.

Hopes for the future are continuously recalibrated and there is ever present concern that no matter what happens it will not work out well. Illness is not a kaleidoscope of beautiful colors and shapes but rather a frightening hall of distorting mirrors that can be completely disequilibrating. That is the experience created by reading Kate Walbert’s extraordinary novel which may be precisely why it may be useful for residents to read when they are in training. It provides a realistic microcosm of a traumatic event that can help physicians learn what their patients are experiencing, the constantly shifting landscape patients occupy when they come to them for diagnosis and treatment.


Kate Walbert, the author of His Favorites, is a graduate of the NYU Masters in Fine Arts Program. She attended the Pediatric Resident Reading Group in January, and participated in the discussion of His Favorites with the residents who had read her book. The objective of the reading group is to use immersion in exemplary books to foster a more humane assessment of patients and their families. As the organizer of the group, I purposely avoid books with medical themes. The lively discussion of His Favorites suggests that it resonates with pediatricians in training and would be a good addition to a library designed to promote the compassionate practice of medicine.


Simon and Schuster



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