All 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:
— 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.