Two novels set in U.S. private schools

pulitzer3All Souls, by Christine Schutt

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

What is a 61-year-old, childless male doing reading, let only reviewing, two YA novels whose central characters are teenage girls in private schools? A good question (only mildly tinged by self-guilt), requiring explanation. So before asking for 10 minutes of your time to consider these two novels, here’s my justification:

lockhart2– The private boys school has been used as a setting for some excellent novels. Richard Yates A Good School and John Knowles A Separate Peace are two U.S. examples; I won’t even start on British ones. The target audience for these two novels (at least Lockhart’s) may be younger, but the example still holds.
All Souls was one of two runners-up in this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction (to Olive Kitteridge), a decision that was intriguing enough at the time to spark my interest. I am sure Schutt does not call it a YA novel, but it does qualify as one.
Frankie was one of 16 best novels of 2008 in the Tournament of Books, an online, NCAA-style competition (other finalists included Home, Netherland, 2666 and A Mercy — the eventual winner), so it has mixed with good company. Okay, it lost in round one to Shadow Country but even making the literary Sweet Sixteen indicates attention should be paid.
– I’m making my third attempt to read Ulysses right now (as part of dovegreyreader’s year-long, group-read project that starts July 16 — check it out here if you are interested). I’m restricting myself to a maximum of 60 pages a day and wanted some lighter reading to offset Joyce.
– An occasional venture into unfamiliar genres (I’m obviously not the target market for YA) is a good idea for all serious readers.
– I would not have wasted my time — or that of visitors here — if I didn’t think these books worthwhile.

All Souls is Schutt’s second novel; her first, Florida was a 2004 finalist for the National Book Award so she definitely has literary credentials. Set in the upscale Siddons School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it tells the story not just of the girls who attend the school but their (often divorced) parents and the people who teach them. The focus of the book is a senior, Astral Dell, who has a rare cancer — Schutt hangs her observations about the other characters and their lives on their response to Astral’s fate.

While the author carries all this off with considerable aplomb in a highly readable novel, I am left wondering what the Pulitzer jury found that I missed. The biggest problem with the book is that all of the elements in it are quite predictable — even a person as far removed from this reality as I am learned almost nothing new., as entertaining as the process was.

The students have a range of concerns which seemed to indicate to me that not much has changed in the last half-century — lack of friends, snubbing by cliques, being too smart/not smart enough, eating disorders, getting into the right college, having icky parents. Curiously, boys and sex are almost absent (there is one fumbling teacher-student lesbian scene) — drugs don’t get mentioned. Perhaps the notion that nothing has changed for young people in a couple of generations is the author’s point.

In some ways, the parent stories offer and deliver more potential. Even I am aware that being the parent of a private school student in New York City is more work for the parent than it is for the student. Alas, this thread gets under-developed as perceptive as some of Schutt’s observations are. And the teachers are also quite predictable. The idea that private school teachers have somehow fallen into that job because nothing else seemed to fit appears to be another that has not changed.

In the final analysis, All Souls was worth the reading time, but no Pulitzer contender for this reader.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, on the other hand, was an enjoyable, informing and entertaining diversion of the first order. One of the sub-themes of the book is Frankie’s discovery of P.G. Wodehouse and Lockhart has a fair claim to updating the Wodehouse private school tradition of humorously (but devastatingly) portraying the upper class adolescent idling away time to adulthood (including secret societies) where they will continue to idle away time (including secret societies) to a more damaging effect. (Note: I am indebted to Mrs. Berrett, wife of Trevor at mookseandgripes, for drawing my attention to this book — she also used it to convince him to read Wodehouse.) The result is a book that is not only fun to read, it packs its own set of insights.

Frankie is a sophomore at the very exclusive Alabaster Preparatory Academy in northern Massachusetts (think Andover and Exeter) who in the summer after her freshman year has filled out in the right places, both mentally and physically. One of the things that Lockhart does particularly well is capture the awkwardness of adolescence — parts of Frankie’s body, mind and personality are fully developed, others have a long way yet to go. One of the things Frankie acquires at the start of her sophomore year is a boy-friend who is a senior, Matthew Livingston (“supremely goofy, word-obsessed”) who happens to be a) heir to a newspaper empire and b) top dog in the school’s long-established secret society, the Loyal Order of Basset Hounds.

Frankie is a prankster and quite a bit smarter than Matthew (okay, teenage girls being smarter than teenage boys is another thing that has not changed in the last 50 years — I’d like to think we males catch up, but that can be debated in the comments to this post). Wodehouse-like, many institutional disruptions occur. While I did not meet Mrs. KFC until we were both in university, I can’t help but note that Frankie and the young Mrs. KFC had a lot in common, to the chagrin and challenge of the schools they attended. And the pranks that Lockhart details in the book are so good that there is no way that I am going to risk spoiling them. Just let me pique your interest by saying that she cites Chuck Palahnuik and Michel Foucault as sources in her acknowledgements. And she listens to The Smiths when she is in need of inspiration. These are major league pranks.

Lockhart does an excellent job of developing the internal conflicts that maturing young people face, in a way that has as much appeal to an adult as her target younger audience. She plays some wonderful intriguing riffs on the importance of “secret societies” in modern America (think George W. Bush and much of the Wall Street gang). Along the way, for those of us who like words, she develops some interesting word games. Frankie is entranced with the idea of INPs (imaginary neglected positives — “immaculate” and “maculate”) and FNPs (false neglected positives — “disgruntled” and “gruntled”). Wodehouse would have been proud of Lockhart as a student.

Neither of these books takes long to read and neither descends into annoying, uninteresting digressions. As someone who for the most part reads novels that demand quite a bit of concentration from the reader, both were not just a welcome diversion, they delivered considerable insight. I suspect that I will give Frankie a second read some time — and that’s about as strong a recommendation as I ever come up with.

Meanwhile, it is time for another 50 or 60 pages of Ulyssess. I will return to James Joyce both refreshed and eager, a tribute to both Christine Schutt and E. Lockhart. You could do a lot worse than reading these two books.

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14 Responses to “Two novels set in U.S. private schools”

  1. sherryberrett Says:

    I’m so glad you liked Frankie! I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous, but I think Lockhart is one of the most brilliant YA writers out there. Not just because she writes such fun and clever books, but because they are totally attainable for teens. It’s a hard line to tread and most seem to be pretty far on one of the sides.
    Lockhart makes a point (I recently learned) to always have reference to some greater work. She has a book that redoes Kafka that I’m looking into. Sadly, she isn’t readily available at bookstores and I keep forgetting to order it online.
    I just started All Souls and am feeling lukewarm about it. I’ll agree that nothing seems that new and I keep waiting for the big twist or some moment of enlightenment. I’m hoping I’ll get more interested in the characters themselves so it will be more enjoyable.
    “In the ladies we trust!”

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Many thanks for putting me on to Frankie — I very much appreciate her. And, from this very limited exposure, I would say that Lockhart does a very good job of introducing young readers to fine writing.

    Please check back in when you have finished All Souls and we can compare notes then.

  3. Trevor Says:

    Excellent review, Kevin. I’ve been tempted for a while to read Frankie, and I think I would have gotten to it soon, but I’m thinking I need to do it sooner than later.

    It’s interesting to see how a book like Frankie can speak to multiple generations even though it is focused on one, and only one of the genders really. Normally a book like this wouldn’t appeal to me in the slightest, but knowing that she infuses great writers into the text with masterful skill is worthwhile. And I’m convinced there is much more to it than that.

    (Excellent new blog quote, by the way! Who knew she’d endorse you this soon!)

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You’ll find that Lockhart is very knowledgable about young males as well as females.

    As for the blog quote, now that Frankie is nearing the end of her junior year, her reading horizons have expanded. Good news for KFC as I am looking for more younger visitors.

  5. Isabel Says:

    Good choices for a break in serious readings.

    It’s good that you left your comfort zone.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It was hardly leaving my comfort zone when I knew she was reading Wodehouse. Now Borges…that would be leaving the comfort zone.

  7. Paul Says:

    Interesting article! Thanks!

  8. Kerry Says:

    Great review. I had somewhat decided to let The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks slide from memory. I watched it with interest in the Tournament of Books, but it never gained enough traction for me to try it. Now, with a teenage niece and a daughter that may soon be ready to give it a try, your review pushes me over the top. It’s going on the list so I can recommend it to the young ladies I know. Oh, and enjoy it too, hopefully.

    Thanks.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: If your niece is a reader, my prediction is the book will give you something to talk about. And I certainly found Frankie to be a worthwhile diversion from my normal reading course — I’m glad I took it and, to the credit of the book, the memories of it are getting even better.

  10. Trevor Says:

    I was wondering, Kevin, what your next diversion might be. Any avenues looking interesting or even any particular candidates?

  11. Mrs. Berrett Says:

    We have a non-reader (able, not typically willing) staying with us and I handed her one of Lockhart’s other books, The Boyfriend List. She read through it and the second of the series in a few days. She loved them, but is having a harder time getting into Frankie. She says she’s getting into it, but it’s going much slower.
    I wouldn’t recommend The Boyfriend List to you, Kevin. It deals with a more psychological approach to teen life, but has a typical high school clique-type backdrop.
    The ALA recently had their dinner and Sherman Alexie noted Lockhart in his speech when addressing the need for YA authors to stop underestimating teen’s intellect. These are her words (from her blog):
    “His talk was an impassioned argument in favor of fearless intellectual content in books for teenagers. He pointed out how voracious teens are in wanting to know about the stuff they want to know about — and how if we assume they are afraid of challenging content, we will end up raising a nation of people ill-equipped to handle difficult ideas.”

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Frankie sounds rather fun, All Souls sounds more like a good YA work but one perhaps with less to offer the adult reader.

    Personally, I see nothing remotely wrong with reading YA or even children’s books, good writing is good writing, the only real risk is that adult expectations could flatten a text which isn’t intended to bear their weight. That said, I do rather dislike the habit with Harry Potter (which I don’t like at all I’m afraid) of issuing versions with adult covers rather than covers aimed at children, if you’re going to read a children’s novel you shouldn’t pretend it’s actually an adult work by changing the cover.

    One other thing strikes me, I think the rare cancer bit is a bit of a crutch, one should really be able to deal directly and interestingly with young people’s lives without having to have one of them dying to bring it into relief. It’s been used a few times that technique, but it’s not one I’m personally fond of.

    How’s Ulysses going? Bit of a rather you than me Kevin, that one.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: We are heading into the opening of Book Prize season, so that will probably be the next diversion. Two weeks to the Man Booker longlist and a decision on whether or not I will try to read the entire longlist. (I did read all but one last year.) Following your excellent example with the Pulitzers, I also intend to revisit some early Giller winners this summer before we head into that season. As for the escapist part of me, Richard Russo has a new book out in August (That Old Cape Magic) which is set in both Cape Cod and Maine. Russo is one of my favorite “storyteller” authors and I love both those places. (You are welcome to provide recommendations on novels set on the Jersey Shore — Frankie has a scene there — to help with my East Coast development.) Also, I’m interested in John Irving’s new book this fall — he is one of those authors (like A.S. Byatt) whom I used to love, but have not much liked recent work. And the most “diversion” like plan is something that has been on my mind for a few months — a reread of J.D. Salinger’s Glass stories. I do this every few years and, if it wasn’t for that stupid court case, would probably have done this already. It is a perfect rainy weekend project — I know from experience that that is all it takes to read all three books.
    Mrs. Berrett: I’ll keep an eye out for Lockhart, but as much as I liked Frankie it will be a sideline. The quote citing Alexie is interesting because it introduces Alexie’s own involvement with indigenous people’s literature — there are some interesting comparisons between that and YA. On that front, keep an eye out for Robert Arthur Alexie’s (no relation) Porcupines and China Dolls. It is the best book I have read this year but he seems to have publisher problems (Theytus Press is a small, aboriginal firm in British Columbia) in terms of getting the book to market. It is by for the most emotional, heart-breaking book that I have read this year.
    Max: The interesting thing about these two books is that All Souls is not intended as a YA novel, but in some ways turns out to be more like what I think a YA novel is. For me, the problem with Schutt’s work was that it was full of interesting ideas that never really got developed. Whereas Frankie started out with somewhat less ambitious goals, and then proceeded to exceed them. I do think you would rather enjoy it — for you, it would have the additional interest of offering some insight on how America trains its ruling classes (although that clearly is a secondary part of Lockhart’s agenda).
    Ulysses is going just fine. Since dogegreyreader’s project is a yearlong affair, I have put in place some counter-intuitive rules — no more than two reading sessions a week and each of those must end at the first logical breaking point after 40 pages. So far that has got me close to page 200 (my edition is about 1,100 pages) and the thinking time after each reading session has helped to bring the work into focus. The biggest benefit is that I am chomping at the bit for the next reading session. The other trick I am taking to it is a deliberate attempt not to try to understand every reference — I’ll take what comes and ignore what doesn’t. Some people have made Ulysses their life work — I am not one of them.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, interesting about Ulysses, if I ever give it a go (stranger things have happened) I’ll apply your approach. My error, I suspect a common one, was to try to read it in one go and like many I got indigestion in fairly short order.

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