Koren Zailckas’s new novel, The Drama Teacher, is an intriguing take on the domestic noir genre that’s flourished in recent years. What sets it apart from its predecessors though is a simple twist — Zailckas’s titular protagonist isn’t the passive victim, taken in by a seemingly charming husband who eventually turns out to be some kind of criminal mastermind; she’s the seasoned grifter, setting the traps that ensnare others.
A misheard introduction by the side of the pool at an exclusive spa nestled in the Catskills accidentally turns Gracie Mueller into Tracey Bueller. “I felt my lips part. A second passed. Then two. And instead of clearly repeating myself (Gracie) or making a joke about how screaming children cause hearing loss, I nodded and smiled. It was more sensible to use a fake name, given what we were up to.”
Gracie’s been here before — back in London she and her husband Oz were in the game of wooing investors for European holiday homes they didn’t own. Then they were caught — or Oz was — so while he’s being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, Gracie (and her and Oz’s infant son) wound up in America.
She starts over — a second marriage (technically bigamous, but that’s the least of her worries) and a second child has seen her playing “the role of the pampered housewife” for the last few years. Now, however, the marriage is crumbling and their debt is mounting, so Gracie’s taken matters into her own hands.
Her new mark in Melanie, a wealthy housewife and mother with too much time on her hands. Unfortunately though, what begins as a relatively harmless short-term con soon spirals out of control, and Gracie flees the scene. New York City offers her the anonymity for yet another do-over. Here she craftily inveigles her and her children’s way into Boulevard, the city’s most prestigious prep school, but just as things finally seem to be coming together, a fistful of loose ends from her various past lives threaten to destroy everything she’s worked so hard for.
Although inherently untrustworthy, there’s something immediately likeable about Zailckas’s narrator and I couldn’t help but root for her from the start. Unfurling alongside events in the present is the story of Gracie’s past — the peripatetic childhood she spent with her scammer father, her gap year travels in India, where she meets Oz, and their life together before he’s arrested.
It’s something of a slow build to begin with, but if you bear with it your patience is rewarded. First by some well-timed twists, and finally with a fittingly dramatic denouement in which the two narrative strands eventually converge. On occasion I found myself unconvinced by some of the finer details, but isn’t that the case with even the best psychological thrillers?
Reminiscent of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known, both in terms of the elite Manhattan school setting, and the clever ways in which both writers defy some of the expectations of the genre within which they’re working, for the most part The Drama Teacher is sharp, smart and suspenseful.