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13 November 2010
Book Review: School for Love by Olivia Manning
Final day of NYRB Classics Reading Week
Well, I started out out strong (and organized) with my NYRB posts this week. I planned ahead so I would have a variety of stuff to write about this week, but then things got very busy and time slipped away. And now I sit here with my mind somewhat blank. I am in London right now and going to meet up with a bunch of UK bloggers this afternoon so I just feel a bit distracted. It is kind of interesting that I am wrapping up my participation in NYRB Classics Reading Week just in time to go visit Persephone Books for the first time. Persephone and NYRB Classics have much in common, rescuing long forgotten quality fiction in beautiful, quality editions.
I finished the last 20 pages of School for Love on the plane. In fact, quite unusual for me, those were the only 20 pages I read on the whole six hour, twenty minute-flight. Normally on a transatlantic flight I get lots of reading done, but John and I were both so wiped out that we skipped the in flight meal and just about everything else and slept for about five hours. I don't think I have ever managed to sleep that much at once in a coach seat. It was great, the flight whizzed by and we got to London feeling really refreshed. But it meant that I didn't get much reading done.
School for Love is the story of an English teenager, Felix Latimer who finds himself in Jerusalem in 1945. Orphaned while living with his parents in Iraq, he is unable to get passage back to England in the final days of WWII. He is sent off to live with Miss Bohun, a friend of his father's family. Miss Bohun is a stingy, churchy, old maid--the kind that gives old maids a bad name She runs a miserable boarding house taking advantage of her lodgers by charging them the going, rather exorbitant, rate but maintaining near poverty-like conditions in the house. All the while acting like she is doing them all a favor. Her duplicity about the cost of lodging is echoed in her duplicity in spirit. A holier-than-thou Christian waiting for the second coming, she acts in a most dishonest and un-Christ-like way to Felix and the others who live in the house. Perhaps worse than her meanness of spirit is the fact that she tries to cover it up with her piety.
The teenage Felix matures while staying with Miss Bohun. Like a child when he arrives, he reveres Miss Bohun thinking that others who think less of her are being unkind and unjust. But as the story unfolds Felix begins to see her for what she is. However, much to my chagrin, Miss Bohun never gets her comeuppance. In fact, just the opposite. I think School for Love is probably meant to teach us something profound about the human need for love, but I found Miss Bohun to be such a meany, I didn't want to sympathize with her at all. I would have loved to have seen her transformed, but Manning seems intent on making us love unpleasant Miss Bohun just as she is. Might be a profound message, but it didn't obviate my desire to see her get what she deserved.
Despite my slight disappointment with the ending, I really enjoyed School for Love. In addition to telling the somewhat emotional tale of each of the characters, it describes life in a very diverse and interesting Jerusalem, which is both literally and figuratively foreign to me. And there are moments of humor, like when Miss Bohun presses one of her adult private students into harvesting her mulberry bush as part of his lesson. And she seems to be using somewhat antiquated texts that seem most unhelpful for teaching English as a second language. One has a hard time imagining how sounding out the word "postillion" is going to be of much value to someone trying to learn the basics of English.
This was my favorite of the three NYRB Classics I read this week. But none of them came close to some of the brilliant titles I blogged about earlier in the week. I wouldn't say the three I read this week are necessarily lesser works, but they just didn't catch my imagination as the others did.