As we begin A Nest of Snakes by Deborah Levison, we meet Brendan Cortland, a very rich 47-year-old man, extremely disturbed and psychologically complicated. He has kept himself isolated for years in his family’s Connecticut mansion, afraid to go outside except to visit his psychiatrist. Financially secure, he spends his days on his computer hunting for online child predators, while at night, predators like snakes and other animals haunt his dreams. As the story unfolds, so do the many layers of complexity which surround Brendan. Through visits to his psychiatrist, we gradually see the different layers of this pathetic sole - the loss of his authoritarian father at a young age, a detached, insecure, narcissistic mother who leaves him as she is emotionally not capable of being a parent, his failed marriage, and as we delve deeper, we learn that at his troubled core is the abuse he experienced as a teenager at boarding school. Brendan was sent to Torburton Hall Academy for Boys, a boarding school located in pastoral northwestern Connecticut. Brendan, age 14 at the time, had been excited to be entering into a special, elite world that promised to groom him for greatness and success in life. As a blonde Adonis, star lacrosse player, and popular student in his school at home, he was itching to get started on this new path that had previously been traveled by prior generations of prestigious and successful Torburton alumni. Brendan “had it all planned out,” or so he thought.
Brendan and his friends in Torburton’s freshmen class of 1983 quickly come to experience the dark secrets and perverse culture behind the school’s façade. They are subjected to bullying by upperclassmen and descend even further into the darkest recesses of human nature as they are preyed upon and subjected to child abuse by the adult pedophiles who work as teachers and administrators at the school. From Edward Galloway the Torburton headmaster and his wife, to department heads and sports coaches, the culture at Torburton is one of abuse and intimidation which traps and paralyzes broken and powerless students from getting help from the outside world.
Finally, with the assistance of a young female attorney introduced to Brendan by his psychiatrist, Brendan is eventually able to confront his past. Together they prepare to file a lawsuit before his forty-eight-year-old birthday, when the statute of limitations runs out. Brendan gradually reclaims his life as the lawsuit preparation allows him the chance to open up to his lawyer Dylan in a way he never could speak to his psychiatrist during his years of therapy. As Brendan and Dylan discuss his past abuse at the school, Dylan’s pent-up anxieties and guilt over what happened at Torburton spill forth. Together, they slowly gather testimonies and build a case against the school. And although Brendan’s lawsuit against the school many years after the child abuse occurred is a difficult case to prove, he bravely moves forward. Each week of preparation and then throughout the trial, Brendan gradually unburdens himself of the dark secrets of his disturbing and tortured past while at Torburton. As he discusses them, he seems to discover and build back his inner strength. This resurrection all leads to a surprise ending for both the trial and Brendan.
Occasionally, I get the urge to try and write a novel but then my thoughts are quickly dispelled when I read a book like A Nest of Snakes. I was captivated by the writing and story-telling skills of Deborah Levison, the author of this book. Ms. Levison has created a very complicated, layered character in Brendan. Through his tortured past and the salvation provided to him by his pretrial prep and days in court, we watch the author give hope to all those with similarly tortured pasts.
I found the description of authoritative control, bullying, and child abuse, very well-presented as the background for this story. The author skillfully describes disturbing scenes of child abuse in such a way that they are not overly graphic or descriptive but just enough to trigger disgust and revulsion in the reader for pedophilia and its predators. Given the way these scenes and issues are handled in the book, I agree with its designation as being for mature young adults and adults.
Brendan’s life at home and at boarding school brings out our empathy for him and for his friends. They suffer at the hands of sexual predators who are both male and female authoritarian figures and who they have been raised to unquestionably respect. The reader is further drawn into the story as the author provides insight into Brendan’s parents, housekeeper, psychiatrist, lawyer, teachers, friends, and foes. Each has a story that either directly or indirectly helps support the plot and serves to keep the reader engaged as there is not one, but many intertwined lives affected by Brendan and what he had endured at boarding school. Even a school bus driver, who is a witness at the trial, serves to highlight the perversions of society and the troubled soles it entraps. I found that the lawsuit and trial were very realistically depicted, both the proceedings as well as the dialogue between witnesses and lawyers. And the trial beautifully setup the climax and surprise ending. At these points in the book, I had to force myself not to skip ahead to see what happened next, and rather I fortunately was able to let things unfold page by page.
For me the ending lost some of the well-constructed writing of early parts of the book and felt rushed as new witnesses and evidence suddenly appeared in the nick of time to help bring the story to a conclusion. I also felt that at times the story was slightly formulaic touching upon important issues of our time but peripheral to this story, such as a budding mixed-race romance, a rich vs. poor theme, mentions of racism, misogyny, and antisemitism, the respect by a daughter for her retired, older father, and some of the controversy surrounding public vs private education. The metaphoric imagery like dreams of snakes and other predator references throughout the book were perhaps a bit overdone. Furthermore, I do hope that the choice of the trial date as June 6th was not chosen purposely to suggest that Brendan confronting his past at his trial was on par with D-Day of World War II. Child abuse, a very serious issue which was highlighted and dissected beautifully by this author, is among the many horrors of life, but it is far different than war, as they both reside in totally different horror categories.
Overall, I enjoyed reading A Nest of Snakes. The author did a very good job writing a book with a purpose. She has helped to turn the spotlight once again on the heinous crime of child abuse and the sexual assault of minors. Through this story, Ms. Levison offers hope for victims of child abuse still cowering in the shadows and she highlights the importance of how exposing the past can help them find courage to raise their voice and stand up against their own predators.