Will Silver is a high school teacher at an international school in Paris. He is adored by his students for his unconventional way of teaching literature. He teaches them Camus, Sartre, Faulkner, Keats and others, as a way to allow his students to critically think and not to just sit and listen and learn by rote. His charming personality and his good looks have also endeared him to the young women of the school as well as another teacher, Mia, who wants to push their friendship up to the next level. There are two students in particular who idolize him: the half-Arab/half-Jewish student Gilad, a loner who comes from an abusive household; and Colin, a tough, rebellious Irish teenager who was the only one in the class who dared to stand up to Silver, earning him his teacher’s respect.
There is another student, Marie, who is not a student in his class (but is the best friend of Ariel, who is), who at the end of the school year (when the story begins) runs into both Silver and Mia at a bar where the students go to blow off steam after a long, hard school year. Being as popular as he is, the other students are thrilled to see him, along with Mia, hanging out at the bar and they swarm around him, encouraging him to dance with them and generally have a good time. Marie decides to dance with him and in a secret wager made between her and Ariel seduces him on the dance floor. It is after this incident in which Silver finds himself dealing with the same conflicts he had taught his students - the struggle between desire and action. Silver gives into his desires and begins an affair with the 17 year old student.
Here is where the crux of the novel lies: moral ambiguity, betrayal, disappointment, expectations. While Silver and Marie carry on their affair in secret, neither one of them think of the consequences that may arise from it. Silver treats it seriously - and you do get the impression that he is genuinely in love with her - but then again, you are getting it from his side of the story. But is Silver’s account the reality?
The novel’s point of view alternates between Silver, Gilad and Marie, each telling their own version of events. In Silver’s account, he carries on as if this affair is perfectly natural, treating Marie more like a lover than just someone he wants to screw around with. From Marie’s point of view, you get all the naïve, romantic notions a girl her age would have while having an affair with an older man, and the immaturity that often goes along with it.
Gilad’s story is quite different. Having an absentee father who only comes home once in a while (and abuses his mother), Silver is a stand-in; his method of teaching, his patience, his caring and attention draws Gilad closer and closer to him to where it becomes more than just idol worship. There is just a hint of something else - an “affair of the heart”, so to speak, which little by little brings Gilad out of his shell to become more of a man and more confident of himself. He befriends Colin and Colin’s “give-no-shit” attitude also has its effect on the shy Gilad. His world is then shattered by an incident (unrelated to the affair) which makes him second guess Silver and then struggles with the intense disappointment he feels about him.
It probably won't be a surprise to anyone how this all turns out but it does make for a fantastic read which makes you think not only about the moral implications of what Silver is involved in but the things he teaches his students and the question of whether or not one has a responsibility to others as a role model, teacher and friend.
After reading this book, I did a little research on it and its author and discovered to my surprise that the story being told here may not be all that fictional. A controversy surrounded its initial publication because of this. It is believed that everything in it had actually happened and one of the students in which one of the characters was based on tried to stop it’s publication. You can read more about that here.
Having learned this fact - if it is, in fact, true - only makes one think much more deeply about the story being told here. Regardless of whether or not it is really a true story cloaked as a work of fiction, it is still a powerful one, and the fact that it may just be a true story only lends itself to the power of the storytelling.