At 82, Dame Spark brings yet again a brimming supply of wit, drollery, understatement, and plain human interest to a tale—this one about changing sexual alliances in a tiny private school in Europe.
Rowland Mahler, 29, and his wife, Nina Parker, 26, are the founders, managers, and faculty of College Sunrise, the little school that from time to time they move from one European location to another, partly for cachet but partly for the convenience of leaving certain debts behind. Right now, the school has nine students, aged sixteen and up, each supported by well-off parents and each made touching, memorable, or amusing by the merest stroke or two of the Sparkian brush. Still, as Nina teaches her “Etiquette” course and Rowland carries on with his popular creative writing class (one reason for creating College Sunrise was so Rowland could write a novel), one student does come more to the forefront, and that’s Chris Wiley, only 18 but—troublingly indeed for the increasingly envious Rowland—visibly gifted as a writer. Worse than just being talented, Chris, unlike the badly blocked Rowland, is cruising right along with his own first novel—on Mary, Queen of Scots—and even getting some attention from publishers and movie people, fickle as they may prove to be. As the school year moves forward amid various perfections of detail, atmosphere, and event—field trips, fashion shows, hotel dances, sometimes even classes—the real story lies in Rowland’s obsessive envy of Chris and his jealousy-induced breakdown (Rowland actually stays at a monastery for a bit, trying to recover), events followed by one delicately done twist after another as a marriage fails, another comes about, and the Chris–Rowland “problem” is resolved in a most unexpected way.
Another perfect little novel of manners from the ever-wondrous Spark (Aiding and Abetting, 2001, etc.): a microcosm of the world we live in, constructed with wizardry, delicacy, sharp eye, and huge heart.