There aren't any descriptions of tranquil happy school years, those "good old golden rule days" are prehistoric in Christine Schutt's spot on story of the students, parents, and teachers at Manhattan's Siddons School for Girls. A New York prep school teacher herself Schutt well knows of what she writes, and she does so with always delicate, sometimes sparse yet revelatory prose. Characters are displayed to a farthing in snippets of conversation or thoughts.
At the center of the story is Astra Dell, a senior class girl who is suffering from a rare form of cancer. She is that "pale girl...the dancer with all the hair, the red hair, knotted or braided or let to fall to her waist, a fever, and she consumed."
Her father is scarcely able to cope with his beloved daughter's illness. He longs for Grace, his late wife who was killed in an auto accident. Despite Astra's suffering, knowing his sorrow, it is she who tries to console him.
Carlotta Forestal, known as Car, is Astra's best friend. Car has an eating problem, devoting the tense meals shared with her mother to simply pushing and mashing the food on her plate. She has a retreat - her father's apartment to which she has a key. She would go there simply to wander about and phone. It is there that she can light a cigarette and "ash it on the table." Mr. Forestal had an unlisted number and her mother didn't know it, so she was safe. Car thinks of Astra and writes frequent notes to her, which are added to the surfeit of good wishes, balloons and flowers that decorate her hospital room.
Another who often thinks of Astra is Marlene Kovak who visits her often, and pens lengthy letters to her. These missiles are sometimes single spaced and three pages long. Marlene will sit in a corner of the school lounge, listening, taking notes, all to be relayed to Astra. A misfit among the daughters of wealth Marlene is an enigma. She attends Siddons solely because her mother, Theta, borrowed money to keep her there. Theta works in a dentist's office to maintain their modest home and make payments on her debt. Theta is as out of place among the mothers as Marlene is among the students, most of whom are economically privileged and emotionally deprived.
Some other soon to graduate students are Alex and Suki, best friends, who yearn to be party girls and whose college acceptance is assured thanks to family wealth. Although in a group they often engage in sub rosa conversations. As obsessed as they are with their own futures they, too, are affected by Astra's illness, remembering that she came back to school the day after her mother's funeral and agreeing, "She's perfect."
Add to this mix the teachers, specifically Anna Mazur who had come to New York from Michigan seeking "sophistication and experience." She found neither, is attracted to Tim Weeks, the most popular teacher at Siddons, and continuously confuses the names of two black girls. When asked, "Do we all look alike, Miss Mazur?" The thought is "The problem was the girls did look alike."
Another faculty member is Dr. Meltzer, "a fat man who smelled like the movies." After a mishap in class, he screams at a girl, "Who do you think you are?" The reply is "A Du Pont."
This is the world Schutt invites us to enter, and it is a fascinating one peopled with finely wrought characters and quite memorable.
- Gail Cooke