The other week I had a bit of a library splurge and came back with a stack of lovely loans, including no less than three Muriel Spark books.
Being a Spark devotee and feeling a bit overwhelmed with the stack of unread books I have on my shelves I was looking forward to tucking into this little novella.
The Finishing School is a sort of observational piece of writing about College Sunrise, a finishing school for both sexes. The key characters are Chris – one of the students who is writing a novel, and Rowland Mahler, who running the school with his long-suffering wife Nina. Rowland is attempting to finish his own novel and is more than a little envious of Chris’s ability to write effortlessly at the tender age of seventeen. The school itself has only a handful of well to do pupils and changes location each year, possibly to dodge taxes!
The Finishing School is typical of Spark in the sense of it being an amusing observation of human behaviour. Almost from the outset we see Roland, green with envy over Chris’s writing, and as the novel develops his jealousy takes hold to the point where he is filled with feelings of fascination and bordering on murderous:
“Rowland had an urge to tip a bucket of green paint over Chris’s red hair. Green paint, and it all running over his face, and obliterating his book. Or perhaps to wreck the computer with the whole work in it. Switch it off, wreck, terminate it.”
The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Chris is young and good-looking and seemingly carefree as well as entirely aware of Rowland’s fixation. Rowland’s wife stands by almost dispassionately as she watches her husband become ever more obsessed and begins to wonder about her relationship and whether Rowland’s attentions to Chris are purely concerned with his writing ability.
Set against the backdrop of the finishing school and its la-de-da inhabitants who have names like Opal, Celestine and Princess Tilly, the relationship makes for interesting though cringe-making reading. I have to say even though I found Rowland’s obsessive thoughts about Chris funny, I didn’t find myself eagerly picking the book up, perhaps because I was less concerned with the other characters who I couldn’t relate to and weren’t perhaps as humorous as they could have been. Perhaps it just wasn’t a long enough story to really draw them out. That said, Spark as usual exposes the shallow, the stupid and downright awful characters with a keen eye and superb descriptions. I did genuinely feel sorry for Nina, Rowland’s wife who seemed to be powerless to do anything.
Overall I found this an enjoyable and funny read but I wouldn’t point readers new to Spark to it. The Girls of Slender Means (a recent review from Savidge Reads can be found here.)is a much better example of the wonderful talent she had for exposing the best and the very worst of human nature in an amusing way.
I’m hoping for a very special Muriel Spark present under the tree this year in the form of this lovely biography, (thanks Mum) so I’ll be able to find out a little more about one of my favourite writers.
Have you read any Spark? What’s your favourite?