Kate Walbert's His Favorites begins with a drunken joy ride in the 1970s, in which Jo kills her best friend. To avoid the judgment of her community, Jo enrolls in a prestigious boarding school, only to find that her guilt still makes her an outcast. A charming English teacher, Master, recognizes Jo's vulnerabilities and selects her as one of his favorites, a group of girls he both lauds and taunts in class. Outside class, the students become pawns in his games of sexual and emotional manipulation. While Jo is aware she isn't the first, she struggles under the weight of knowing that she will not be his last.
Walbert finds purchase in the slippery issue of sexual assault by burrowing into the mind of one young girl, unfurling and dissecting the nuances of her life, rather than figuring her as simply one of many. Walbert's prose can be as tense and complex as a muscle as it constructs "the springy species [of grass]... aerated by the spikes... of the golfers' shoes" and "the smell of sharp, newly shorn, fresh-turned, wormy dirt and even a certain mist." She meditates on the importance of writing in defining the self as Jo admits that her own style has been shaped by Master. While Walbert's tale raises questions of how women can speak within such a system, her storytelling is a tribute to the power of words. A brutally efficient testimony to an issue that is both timely and timeless, His Favorites maps a trajectory that has become all too familiar in a manner that reminds readers of the individuals pinned to its heart. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor