Rebecca Makkai keeps readers guessing in ‘I Have Some Questions for You’

The author of “The Great Believers’' delivers a stylish mystery with unexpected depths.
Rebecca Makkai's new novel is "I Have Some Questions for You."
Rebecca Makkai's new novel is "I Have Some Questions for You." [ BRETT SIMISON | Brett Simison ]
Published March 16

At 40, Bodie Kane isn’t especially nostalgic about her high school years.

The narrator of Rebecca Makkai’s smart, gripping new novel, “I Have Some Questions for You,” Bodie was an outsider at the Granby School, a sort-of scholarship student at the New Hampshire boarding school mostly populated by rich kids. She never really fit into their world of ski trips and huge wardrobes and indulgent parents — she got into Granby because her kind but distant foster father was an alum, and her Goth makeup and Doc Martens branded her amid the rainbow of cashmere sweaters that students like her roommate wore.

About that roommate: Bodie and Thalia Keith roomed together during junior year. Thalia was the class beauty, a charismatic, popular girl way above Bodie on the school’s food chain. But Thalia was kind to her; they weren’t friends, but they knew each other.

Then, in 1995, their senior year, Thalia is murdered.

She leaves the stage after performing in the student production of “Camelot” and isn’t seen until days later, when her body is found in the swimming pool of the school gym.

It doesn’t look like an accident, and soon police arrest Omar Evans, the school’s athletic trainer, a well-liked young Black man. He confesses after 15 hours of questioning and is serving life in prison.

Tragic, but nothing to do with her, Bodie thinks. But a couple of decades later, the world has changed.

She’s made a career teaching film studies and, recently, as the co-host of Starlet Fever, a podcast about women victimized by Hollywood. Hooked into the podcasting world, she’s aware that Thalia’s death has become an object of obsession — she’s the quintessential true crime subject, the pretty white girl dead under mysterious circumstances. The legions of people immersed in her case are not convinced of Omar’s guilt; they see too many unexamined clues, too many unquestioned suspects, and Omar is another true crime trope, the Black man rushed to judgment.

There’s a video clip online, just a few moments of Thalia on stage at the end of the play, turning her head to speak to someone off stage and invisible. Like so many others, Bodie watches it over and over, wondering what Thalia said and to whom — her fixation fueled by the fact that she was there that night and, in fact, was in charge of tech for the play.

Then Granby invites Bodie to teach a two-week workshop for aspiring podcasters. Her students are sharp and ambitious, and they all want to know about Thalia. Back in the place where it happened, Bodie is drawn into an escalating search for the truth — if the truth is even possible.

Makkai’s last novel, “The Great Believers,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, was set mainly amid the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when a diagnosis was a death sentence and homophobia savagely prolonged efforts to find treatments.

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“I Have Some Questions for You” is tied together by a different thread: the #MeToo movement that shined light on systemic sexual exploitation and abuse in show business and beyond.

Not that the novel is a polemic; Makkai weaves the subject into the heart of her story in complex ways. Bodie is amicably separated from her husband, Jerome, a successful artist. But, despite Bodie’s podcast centered on revealing sexism, when a woman Jerome knew before he and Bodie married accuses him in a performance art piece of exploiting her, Bodie’s first impulse is to defend him. When she does so online, the storm of attacks has serious blowback.

Thalia’s sexuality was always part of her story, starting soon after her death with rumors that she was secretly sleeping with Omar. She had a stormy relationship with her boyfriend, Robbie Serenho, a handsome competitive skier. And throughout the novel, Bodie circles around the relationship between Thalia and the school’s music teacher, Mr. Bloch, whom she sometimes addresses directly as “you.”

As Bodie and her students dig into the case, the stakes go higher, and Bodie sees the past in a different light. Behavior by male students back in the ‘90s that she and the other girls shrugged off as horseplay by jerks or endearing jealousy resonates differently; the then-vaguely romantic possibility that Thalia was having an affair with Mr. Bloch now looks like predation.

Bodie feels like she’s in “an emotional swamp” as the investigation intensifies and memories threaten to overwhelm her. With each interview she and her students do with people connected to Granby and the case, new information reshapes her reality. In some chapters she vividly imagines how different people could have killed Thalia. Are any of those narratives the right one?

Makkai’s sleek, beautifully crafted prose and sharp sense of character make “I Have Some Questions for You” a pleasure to read even as its twisting plot propels us into darkness.

I Have Some Questions for You

By Rebecca Makkai

Viking, 448 pages, $28