I recently read Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony very closely because they’re similar to a novel I’m working on and relevant to an academic paper, which is a two-for-one deal. I like both novels, but reading Testimony a third time gave me some insight into how it functions; don’t keep reading if you fear spoilers:
1) Testimony is much looser than Election; I think Election is a better book for that reason. We get a better sense of character from it, and the motivations of each characters. I love the scene where Tammy is crying in front of the school counselor and says, “I’m in love,” but she loves her best friend, or former best friend, Lisa. The counselor says, “When you’re ready, you can tell me all about him.” Tammy thinks, “That’s when I realized how impossible it was, my whole life.” She’s right. That also gives motivation for everything else in the story, which looks inexplicable to everyone else. In Testimony, Silas and Rob in particular remain ciphers throughout the novel. That might be intentional.
2) There are more characters in Testimony; their voices are more different than the voices in Election, but too many of them are weak. Silas is or sounds like an idiot, although there’s an explanation in the sense that “he” wrote his sections in the cold, while he’s nuts with grief at his own behavior, and when he might be committing suicide because he can’t stand facing his family and Noelle. Noelle is little better as a character because she’s a little smarter. Sienna is like my dumber freshmen. Ellen, Rob’s mom, may be the most irritating: she speaks in the second person, and aside from her caring for Rob, she doesn’t have much of a function. I get the impression that she’s there to give conventional middle-class women someone to root for than because she moves the story along. Tammy and Paul’s mother does something similar in Election, but she has many fewer scenes.
3) Testimony has a much weaker sense of scene in general; the scenes it does have are much looser and less focused, as noted above. The abstract observations in Election are grounded in the immediate actions of the characters. The ones in Testimony sometimes aren’t. The Ellen character in particular has this problem. Still, some the lyrical sections in Testimony are quite nice.
4) Both novels have choppier timelines than I realized when I first read through them. Readers can probably follow more dodges and weaves than I fully realized previously, and they can handle moving backward and forward in time without explicit direction.
5) The teenage characters mentioned in point two show the danger of letting teenagers speak as teenagers; I’m fond of quoting Salon‘s review of “90210” and “Gossip Girl” on the subject: “Where Blair and Serena’s lines snap, crackle and pop with wit and cleverness, the soggy stars of “90210” stumble over one cliché after another. “Awkward!” Annie blurts at Ethan after they encounter Ethan’s ex Naomi, then Annie does her best impression of the cynical teenage eye roll, as Ethan mutters, “Good times!” Oof. [. . .] But every scene is filled with such teen-bot tripe.” That’s not true of Testimony, but the novel flirts with this problem. Mike anchors the story sufficiently that we don’t get lost among the inarticulate. Noelle is also more knowledgable than the others, and we’ve all met Siennas. The reason for Silas’s meanderings get explained at the end.
6) I’m impressed that Shreve kept the knowledge that only Mike, Anna, Owen, and Silas have from leaking into the other characters. Silas’s actions remain mysterious to us until we learn his mother is having an affair with Mike. The idea that this would cause him to get drunk and bang a hot 14-year-old girl stretches plausibility but doesn’t tear it.
7) The “professional” characters are very flat, and factual, like the reporter, Colm, and the lawyer; these are supposed to provide a counterpoint to the highly emotionally charged scenes from the teenagers, who aren’t articulate and don’t know what’s happening to them. Except for Noelle, who is looking back, and J. Dot, who is aloof, an asshole, and perhaps right.
8) There are only really two major events in the novel: the making of the tape and the Mike / Anna romance. Virtually everything else is lead up, reaction to, or speculation regarding those two things. Contrast that with Election’s romances: there’s Tracy-Jack. Paul-Lisa. Tammy-Lisa, and Tammy’s crush on Dana. There are other events: Mr. M encourages Paul to run. The Warren family constellation, with its tensions. Tracy’s desire to be president, or be something, with President being a reasonable proxy. The election itself ensures that the novel is about more than just who’s with who. There’s a lot more narrative and less “This is how I feel.” It’s also shorter novel. The longer book doesn’t have quite enough narrative to sustain it. There are a number of places where I say things like, “This chapter is fairly useless.” That’s for a reason.
9) The entries / chapters for Testimony are much longer than the ones for Election because each chapter is much, much longer. I don’t think a greater or smaller number of chapters is inherently better, but in this case I think the game goes to Perrotta; Election has 100 “chapters” or unique voices who speak, while Testimony has 53.
10) Looking over this, I’m too harsh on Testimony. It’s still a very finely written book. I read very few books twice, let alone more than twice, let alone think about them consciously as models for a novel or worth writing an academic article about.