The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

June 1, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): Rowland Mahler runs College Sunrise, a mobile “finishing school” that relocates around Europe every year, with his wife Nina. This isn’t the kind of typical boarding school where students form secret societies, share acne lotion with their roommates, or have late-night discussions about the opposite sex. In fact, there are only nine students in the school, which provides the Mahlers with just enough tuition income to break even. That’s fine with them, though, as they really desire nothing more than to do something that allows Rowland plenty of time to work on his novel. Since Rowland only teaches a couple of creative writing classes, the situation is seemingly ideal.

But things start going downhill when Rowland learns that one of his students, 17-year-old Chris Wiley, is writing a historical fiction novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. Chris seems so utterly confident in his novel’s progress — unlike Rowland, who is suffering from massive writer’s block — and is so sure that publishers will be knocking down his door to award him a contract just because of his age, that Rowland becomes further paralyzed about his own writing. What’s more, he soon becomes completely obsessed with both Chris and his novel. He mentally plots ways to get hold of Chris’s manuscript, and frequently drops not-so-subtle hints that Chris should give up the writing. All of the students, and Nina too, know of Rowland’s obsession, with quite a few even wondering if the attraction is sexual in nature.

Rowland, realizing how unhealthy his situation is and fearing that it might even lead to murder, eventually removes himself to a monastery for a while. But Chris actually requests that Rowland come back to College Sunrise. It seems that Chris is thriving off Rowland’s jealousy and cannot work properly without Rowland around. Rowland returns, and the two continue their uneasy coexistence.

As the very short novel winds down, it’s revealed that both Rowland and Chris get their work published, and enjoy moderate success as a result. What’s more, about a year later Chris and Rowland unite in a same-sex “affirmation” ceremony — just as people suspected they might. The epilogue provides closure for the other students and Nina too, but those secondary characters played such a minor role throughout that their fates are hardly memorable.

Liked:

  • Apparently, Muriel Spark is renowned for her brevity as much as for the actual content of her novels. I liked that this one was over with so quickly.
  • I thought the basic premise of exploring a teacher’s jealousy of a pupil’s talent was great; it’s too bad Spark went for humor/satire rather than a more serious angle. I think a serious story about this subject would have been far more interesting to read.

Disliked:

  • I wasn’t impressed by the plot developments at all. By the time I got to the end, I was just like, “So what?” I guess that means I didn’t care about the characters either.
  • I know this was supposed to be satire, but I just found most of the book the be utterly ridiculous. Sure, I can accept the bit about Rowland feeling some artist’s jealousy about Chris, but for it to turn murderous seemed way out there and hard to swallow (in this situation, I mean). I know jealousy causes people to do crazy things, but the jealousy just felt so … manufactured here that I couldn’t believe the stuff that happened because of it.
  • There was never any real reason for Rowland to be jealous of Chris. He was just jealous because he thought Chris was having such an easy time writing the novel. But several publishers thought the book needed lots of work, which should have salved Rowland’s ego and showed him that Chris was just full of bluster. I simply didn’t understand the jealousy angle very well — and since that was the main point of the whole book, I ended up not liking it.

Rating:

Perhaps the British/European humor went right over my head or something, but I thought The Finishing School by Muriel Spark was utterly dry and boring. Neither the characters nor the plot were developed to an extent sufficient enough to hold my interest, and there was absolutely zero payoff in the end. I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

One Response to “The Finishing School by Muriel Spark”

  1. I’m sorry you weren’t fond of this one. I have yet to read anything by Muriel Spark but I really want to–I doubt I will start with this one though!

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