FICTION

Payback

Pantheon. Sept. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781524749224. $27.95. F
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Agnes, a young art teacher at an exclusive girls school in Rhode Island, takes an interest in and tries to mentor her truculent student Heidi, who has problematic parents and seems unwilling or unable to mesh well with her classmates. Heidi tentatively accepts Agnes’s overtures, but when a tragedy occurs, Agnes fails her at a crucial moment. Overcome by guilt and shame, Agnes, through family connections, relocates to Rome and eventually marries into a wealthy Italian family while pursuing a successful career as an art restorer. After a few years of squalor and struggle, Heidi becomes a successful businesswoman and transforms herself into Quin Archer, host of the ambush-style reality TV show Payback. Decades later, Quin decides it is time to get the “payback” she feels she deserves from Agnes by featuring her own story on the show.
VERDICT Award winner Gordon (Final Payments) stacks the deck a bit too much in Agnes’s favor, making her eminently likable and sympathetic, despite her undeniable privilege. Heidi/Quin is the clear villain. The moral dilemma could have been more evenhanded, although perhaps that would have undercut Gordon’s aim of indicting the glorification of meanness that has seeped into contemporary American culture.

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