four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
By: 
Muriel Spark
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-FinishingSchoolAt College Sunrise, founded by 20-something, striving novelist Rowland Mahler and his wife, the nine spoiled students (like Tilly, a princess from an imaginary nation who’s sleeping with the gardener) receive a dubious education. They prance around Europe from year to year (they’re now on Lake Geneva), learning etiquette and generally useless rules to live by. When Chris Wiley, an arrogant but talented 17-year-old, enters Rowland’s creative writing class with a historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, the trouble begins. Chris’ impending success drives Rowland (a blocked writer) mad, maybe even murderous. And in this psychological satire on sexual and creative rivalry, just about anything could happen.
Doubleday. 192 pages. $16.95. ISBN: 0385512821

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Spark is] still up to her sly tricks as a shrewd chronicler of human self-delusions and hypocrisies. … This breezy book is part social satire, part comic nightmare—and all delicious." Misha Berson

Spectator 4 of 5 Stars
"What a rich seam Spark has quarried here. Moreover, it is cunning how, to the extent her purpose requires, she exploits the reader’s own jealousies or envies, in regard to these imagined students, so rich, so beautiful, so unanxious and so dreadfully young."
P. N. Furbank

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Spark is] less a queen of special effects than an empress of literary sleight of hand. … [W]hat grace and beauty she’s still displaying during the golden days and starlit nights of her absolutely marvelous career." Carolyn See

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The characters in The Finishing School, like those in her recent—and much less successful—novel, Reality and Dreams, are paper thin: stick figures. But in this case, the liveliness of her satire and the exuberance of her inventions more than make up the difference." Merle Rubin

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Being who she is—a Roman Catholic convert with a firm belief in sin and salvation—Spark regards jealousy not as a psychological problem but a spiritual one, a particular sin against the Holy Ghost. … Her novels are so full of arbitrary quirks that they ought to be terrible, and yet they somehow never are." Thomas Mallon

Critical Summary

Spark, 86, has had a long and distinguished career—remember The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)? The Finishing School proves she’s still up to task. "I’m in full control," Chris tells Rowland. "Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it." The same can be said for Spark, whose sharp, authoritative voice produces a satirical look at cosmopolitan vacuity. As a Roman Catholic convert, Spark raises moral questions about jealousy, delusion, and hypocrisy. Her old-fashioned tone adds charm to her quirky plot and characters. The epilogue doesn’t quite match up, but so what? You’ll learn lots of valuable tidbits, like: if, "as a U.N. employee, [you] are chased by an elephant, stand still and wave a white handkerchief. This confuses the elephant’s legs."

Also by the author

Memento Mori | Muriel Spark (1959): Each member of a group of elderly friends receives a telephone call: "Remember you must die." As the story unfolds, lies, secrets, and dark pasts are revealed among this collection of "everyday" people.