When we break a good resolution, we usually tell ourselves that it is only this one time and for a good reason. In my case, asking She Was the Quiet One from NetGalley after swearing only to request review copies of new books by authors I had previously read and liked was the specious attraction of the setting—Odell, a boarding school in New Hampshire. I had just completed a novel of my own set at a boarding school in New England that I thought it would be fun to compare notes on how it is done. In this case, Michele Campbell ought to have known that teachers are mandated reporters; that means they are required to report any instances of what they reasonably believe to be physical or sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities. In the case of Sarah and Heath Donovan, who are the housemasters of Moreland Hall, they are informed of a hazing incident when a girl in their dorm beaten on her bare buttocks with a leather slipper and a video posted on Snapchat, and they first concern was how it might affect Heath’s chances of becoming headmaster. As it turns out, the girl withdraws from school but her family sue the perpetrator’s family for the absurdly astronomic sum of $20 million, though the only lasting injury was to the victim’s self-esteem. I doubt law school was part of the author’s formation: later we see a lawyer imagining that asserting girl’s Miranda rights means that she cannot co-operate willingly with the police.
Two sisters are involved. Rose and Bel, fraternal twins. (Is it sexist to refer to twin sisters as “fraternal”? My dictionary doesn’t have an adjective derived from “soror.”) Orphaned, they are sent off to boarding school at the behest of granny’s lawyer (the one who’s not so up on Miranda) boyfriend. They are opposite personalities: Rose is studious and serious; Bel is unfocused and pliable, and finds herself involved in an affair with housemaster Heath Donovan, who is definitely the instigator and consummates their relationship at midnight in the laundry room of the dorm. There’s “a contest, which senior girl can bed Donovan”—I wondered why.
If one is going to portray illicit relationships between teacher and student, make it attractive; feature some class. Have the teacher at least pretend to sophistication, caring, attentive and considerate sexually, devoted to the student-lover’s intellectual maturity. What the Greeks called paidea. Instead Heath makes Bea slog through muddy winter woods to meet him in a car park and then he drives her to a sleazy motel where she finds out that his amatory technique is of the wham-bam variety. On route he orders her: “A car’s coming. Get down.’ She ducked into the passenger-side foot well, and rode down there the whole way to the motel.” Not exactly a romantic relationship.
Campbell provides us with the stock characters who populate the run-of-the-mill prep school story. There’s Darcy, the classic mean girl: “Life in Darcy’s circle was a big joke. The terrible pressures of Odell—the crushing workload, the college-admissions race, the sane three-hundred-page code [sic] of conduct manual—vanished at the flick of Darcy’s shiny, blond hair. Bel needed to be part of that.” Of course she’d be a blonde. Interestingly though, she hang around after her expulsion and contribute to a minor plot twist. And of course there’s the school bully. “Brandon was a mouth-breathing delinquent. He was also very, very rich, his dad being a real-estate billionaire”! Um! I wonder who he might be based on! And Heath and Sarah’s imagining that promotion to Headmaster and “first lady” (that’s really what somebody calls it in this book) will give them a life of abundance and easy and luxury instead of the endless rounds of fund-raising, ingratiating themselves to parents and potential parents, and scrupulous devotion to the welfare of every single student that the responsibilities of a real school head require.
Stylistically, Michele Campbell scarcely misses a cliché: “He bolted down the front path like he’d been shot from a cannon”; “Sarah was weak as a kitten”; “you scream like a banshee” are a few samples.
So, I have to add She Was the Quiet One to my growing list of bad school stories, that is to say, badly told stories about bad schools. Usually the implicit author of such novels seems to be suffering from a terminal case of class envy, portraying an institution run by bullies and snobs. I’ve written my own story about a school afflicted with some very evil characters. But if an author is aspiring to tragic dignity there should also be characters who genuinely care about formation and education and understand that the welfare of their students is their primary duty, however short they fall of their responsibilities. In this story we have instead an unintentional comedy with teachers who never engage in anything that remotely resembles education, a lawyer who knows nothing about criminal law, police detectives unacquainted with police procedure (they leave a suspected murderess in the school infirmary because she has flu symptoms), and a sleazy seducer whose idea of a love nest is the basement laundry room. Which last pretty much sums up the artistic, moral and educational values this school story inculcates.
I am grateful to NetGalley and St Martin’s for an ARC.