The Finishing School

by Muriel Spark

It never fails to surprise me when I can enjoy a book but not its
characters, and it always speaks to me of great writing. I
absolutely HATE Alice Mellings of Doris Lessing's THE GOOD
TERRORIST, but I have read my copy to literal pieces. However, I
also couldn't stand Dolores Price in Wally Lamb's SHE'S COME UNDONE
and have never thought once about reading it again. Now, into the
first category, enter Rowland and Nina Mahler, the protagonists of

Rowland and Nina, a married couple in their late twenties, have hit
on a great scheme, although it is never referred to as such. They
run a tiny, barely legitimate "finishing" school for a handful of
world weary, not college material, rich kids who really seem to be
just marking time before they marry off (girls), get hired as a
charity case by the family business (boys), or come into their
trusts (both). Despite a popular creative writing class taught by
Rowland, himself a struggling novelist, their only real draw is the
fact that the school --- College Sunrise --- is a mobile one and
thus changes its Western Europe location every year.

The year that we are permitted to observe, the College can be found
in Lausanne, Switzerland. Rowland enjoys his role of professorial
writer while Nina runs both the school and various off the cuff
lectures regarding lesser known facts of international etiquette
(such as if you are ever offered a plover's egg as part of a
cocktail canape, be sure to eat it with your left hand), which
could only be relevant for this motley crew of international
"students." Nina also realizes that her marriage with Rowland is
quickly coming to an end, but she accepts this and has even begun
planning her next life phase.

Their assortment of students include Princess Tilly, of what she is
actually Princess of no one knows; Opal, whose family is going
through bankruptcy; Pallas Kapelas of Greece, whose father is most
likely a spy; and then there is Chris Wiley, who for some reason
thought the College would be the perfect place to write his Novel.
His Novel is always discussed as if capitalized and, after reading
the first few chapters, Rowland is surprised by how good it really
is. Of course, due to his own writing ambitions (which are sent
into a complete tailspin by the proximity of Great Young Writer
Chris), he does everything within his power to play down his
opinion of the fledgling book and, by the end of this short tome,
has moved from subtle editorial criticism of the Novel to out and
out sabotage of Chris's contacts with publishers.

Chris is completely aware of Rowland's maneuvers, as he is of the
maddening jealousy Rowland feels towards him. He purposely flaunts
his Novel in Rowland's nose every chance he gets. It is surprising
that he leaves the school intact, especially considering the
murderous fantasies his "mentor" is having by that time. It is even
surprising to find out where he is two years later in the epilogue
disguised as the final few pages.

This is a fast-moving book, and really more of a novella, which is
why I just can't divulge much more information lest there be
nothing left for you to discover on your own. It has the feel of a
short story that was so intriguing you wished for just a bit more
information, a bit more detail about the main characters, and got
it. I wanted to slap Chris and shake Rowland, and I know I would
never care to take tea with Nina. The rest of the cast, including a
mysterious violin player whose nephew begins an affair with Nina,
never get more than typical short story treatment. They're there
but I just couldn't care, and their presence seems only to serve
the devices of the main characters, which is why, I suppose, little
sub-story lines keep getting interjected and then totally

I would, however, like to take tea with Muriel Spark. I have to
admit, I had never read any of her books before picking up THE
FINISHING SCHOOL and not because it's her first novel. This is a
prolific author with over 25 books to her name, including perhaps
her best-known novel, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE. In addition,
she has penned several collections of short stories, and it is most
likely her experience in that genre that largely shapes this book.
Her writing is crisp and even fresh in a publishing world that
likes to follow bestseller trends. I find this most amazing
considering that Spark is 86 years old, although in her case, to
use a terrible line, it should probably be 86 years young. Her
dialogue, descriptions and properties are completely up to date if
not thoroughly modern. Witty is a word that is often used to
describe Spark's writing, and it fits. It is not, however, a "dear
old Aunt Muriel" type of witty; rather, it is cutting, non-piteous
and calculated.

I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark and already have a
hunch that I will be rereading THE FINISHING SCHOOL very soon, if
only to scowl again at its inhabitants.

Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 21, 2011

The Finishing School
by Muriel Spark

  • Publication Date: September 21, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 181 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385512821
  • ISBN-13: 9780385512824