A year (1997) in the lives of seniors at an exclusive Manhattan girls’ school.
With the delicacy that distinguishes her lapidary stories, Schutt (Florida, 2005, etc.) delivers a novel comprised of small moments experienced by students, parents and teachers at the elite (fictitious) Siddons School. Astra Dell, an ethereal redhead gravely ill from a rare cancer, spends most of her senior year in the hospital, where she receives other members of the Siddons community. Marlene, daughter of a dental receptionist who has struggled to keep her in private school, visits more faithfully than Astra’s usual coterie of sleek, wealthy girlfriends. Marlene’s academic prowess has proved disappointing: In her guidance counselor’s parlance, the Ivy League colleges targeted by her classmates are “moon shots” for Marlene. Also at Astra’s bedside is Miss Wilkes, a teacher who finds herself dangerously drawn to a student, Lisa Van de Ven, who masks inadequacies behind bad-girl bluster, and Carlotta “Car” Forestal, who has an eating disorder ineptly monitored by her too-thin, too-rich mother, and aggravated by her bisexual, absent father, who called Car fat at a Paris cocktail party. Shy teacher Anna Mazur, meanwhile, comes by with handsome colleague Tim Weeks, who’s doomed to disappoint any admirers—by his own admission, Tim’s development was arrested somewhere in middle school. Peripheral characters circle, including Wendell Bliss, father of another Siddons heartthrob, whose wealth has brought nothing but alienation, and Astra’s father, blindsided by fate, which robbed him first of his wife, (killed by an errant cab) and now threatens to take his only child. Astra herself exhibits quiet, saintly strength couched in wry sayings.
Although appropriate to a travelogue of an insular world, the diffuse focus weakens the narrative drive. Still, the spare prose, every word freighted with meaning, rewards repeated readings.