When the Right Place at the Right Time Is Absolutely Wrong

OUR BEST INTENTIONS, by Vibhuti Jain

So much of a successful life depends on chance — being in the right place at the right time, or, conversely, in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s all about luck, happenstance, the roll of the dice … at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. Underneath all that chance is a fundamental truth: Some people have more access to the “right” places, and more resources and support to get out of the “wrong” ones. In her debut novel, “Our Best Intentions,” Vibhuti Jain uses a crime in an affluent Westchester suburb to reveal how views of right and wrong are shaded by privilege, status, color and, of course, money. Whose intentions are best, and for whom, exactly?

For rising sophomore Angela, formerly Anjali, Singh, what initially seems like the right place is cutting through the football field one day in August 2018, on her way home from swimming at her high school’s pool. The facilities aren’t technically open, but the school’s doors are left unlocked for summer classes and teachers’ workshops, so she’s been swimming there six days a week with the tacit approval of her swim coach. Her dedication to training helps her take her mind off the fact that her (maybe former) best friend, Sam McCleary, is back from swim camp in Florida and is hanging out with everyone but Angela. “At least in water, things make sense,” thinks Angela, who’s been swimming ever since her single, working dad signed her up for classes at the local community center after her mom left them when she was little.

In the middle of her walk through the football field, Angela finds Sam’s brother, Henry. He’s in the grass with a knife stuck in his abdomen, desperate and asking for help. A shocked Angela calls 911. It’s the right thing to do. Yet this is the start of everything going terribly wrong.

At first, Angela, who is Indian and one of the few students of color at Kitchewan High School, is hailed as a hero. Henry, who is white and from a wealthy family, and his friend-slash-hanger-on, Chris, are quick to tell the police that Chiara Thompkins, a fellow student who is Black, is the person who stabbed him. Angela had, in fact, seen her on the bleachers at the football field on her way to the pool that day, but Chiara was reading a book, not attacking anyone. Still, the story — as told in a chorus of Instagram messages and cemented by a police investigation that never reveals much — has been established: Chiara is “crazy and violent.” The community also learns that the girl, who moved in with her cousin Didi after fleeing her family in North Philadelphia, wasn’t rightfully enrolled in the school, and they become further incensed, believing that she was taking advantage of “legitimate taxpaying people” in this “nice community.” Angela doesn’t believe it, but what can she do to fight the overwhelming tide of opinion?

Chiara has gone missing after the incident, so she can’t speak for herself. Instead, after setting up the crime, Jain moves skillfully between other people’s points of view, revealing pieces of the truth along with what characters hope to present as such. This is where intentions come in: The truth, or how people see it, is relentlessly clouded by agendas.

Henry’s less wealthy friend Chris wants his mom (who distrusts the wealthy McClearys) off his back; he also wants to combat a deep sense of injustice about the loss of his dad and his place in high school society. Didi wants her favorite cousin to be safe, and then, for society to be better. Mabel Burrowes, the Black principal of Kitchewan High, wants to do the right thing when it comes to Chiara, and all the students in her care. Sure, maybe she never got a formal transcript from Chiara’s old school, but wasn’t enrolling her anyway the best thing to do to help the girl? Angela’s father, Babur, or “Bobby,” wants to protect his daughter, even if it means keeping secrets about her mother, or turning a blind eye to something wrong that might help Angela achieve what he thinks she really wants.

Other than the most powerful white men in the novel, who manipulate others to get what they want without compunction, each character inspires some level of empathy and understanding. That we don’t return to Chiara’s point of view until the very end, when we learn what actually happened, is a brilliant and heart-wrenching move on Jain’s part, illustrating the societal tendency to bend stories to fit what we want to believe about victims, ignoring what they have to say — or their essential humanity — until it’s too late.

As readers, we are so often given feel-good stories of people surmounting the odds, of justice being wrangled back into the hands of those who deserve it. Instead of that, in a novel that will leave you aching — and thinking — Jain asks us to consider what a world might look like if justice really were for everyone, and any one of us could just “happen” to be in the right place at the right time.

Jen Doll is the author of three books, including, most recently, the young adult novel “That’s Debatable.”

OUR BEST INTENTIONS | By Vibhuti Jain | 339 pp. | William Morrow | $30

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