The Finishing School – Muriel Spark

Whilst the delightful, yet never ending and un-commutable, reading of ‘The Passage’ continues in the background at Savidge HQ I have been managing to fit in some smaller reads in between parts over the last few weeks. One such book has been ‘The Finishing School’ the final published book by Muriel Spark before she died. You may well be aware I have become rather a fan of Spark over the last few years ever since Novel Insights introduced me to her when she chose ‘Aiding and Abetting’ for a book group we both used to be members of a few years ago.

From the title you might well assume that ‘The Finishing School’ is a Sparkian (does that sound to grand?) tale of a school for young ladies in the vein of ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie’ or ‘The Girls of Slender Means’ but its not. In fact this is the tale of Rowland Mahler, an aspiring author, and his wife Nina Parker who run a writing school ‘College Sunrise’ that travels through Europe (the main reason for that is they can leave debts behind and charge more to the student’s parents) its students coming from here there and everywhere. One such student is Chris who as it turns out can write and well; in fact Chris seems to be flying through writing a historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of her husband. Something that Rowland should be pleased about and yet is quite the reverse he becomes obsessively annoyed and frustrated by it leading to tense times and dark doings.

That makes the book sound rather simple and it’s not as there are two main themes underlying the whole story those of jealousy and sexuality, to say too much more would be to give far too much away. Muriel Spark is a genius at writing what goes on in the minds of all sorts of people and with the mixed sexes, backgrounds and mental attitudes of the students in this novel/novella she has free reign to enter the minds of an array of characters. Not that I ever felt I really knew any of them too well other than Chris and Rowland who the book really focuses on.

Its interesting because I had the feeling that Spark had a huge amount to say and had somehow limited herself from spelling everything out by keeping the book so short and yet throwing in random scenes like a College Fashion Show that didn’t move the plot or the characters forward. That’s not a criticism, I just felt in writing something longer this might have felt a little fuller and you really could sink your teeth into it. As it stands it’s an interesting read, just not one of my favourite of Muriel’s so far, I am pleased I read it though. 6/10

Something the book did highlight for me was that I am not so keen on ‘modern Muriel’ as I am going to call this particular novel. What I have loved in the previous books of Sparks I have read is that despite the fact they may be set in a certain era they read timelessly. Here though with her mentioning emails, Nike Trainers etc broke the spell somewhat. It wasn’t her writing though it was me, I couldn’t see Muriel Spark surrounded with these things, isn’t that strange? Have you ever noticed that with an author, they include something or write about something in a book that completely breaks the spell for you in some way, do share?

18 Comments

Filed under Muriel Spark, Penguin Books, Review

18 responses to “The Finishing School – Muriel Spark

  1. I liked this one more than some of her novels actually,although the modern setting obviously didn’t make that much impression on me (it was a while ago since I read it). I guess that’s the downside of a writer who writes in the present and has a very long career – if she had just written historical novels then we might not be aware of it!

    • I didn’t dislike the book at all I just didn’t love it and found every time that the word ‘Nike’ or suchlike sprung up in the prose I snapped out of it.

      I wish so much Spark had written a book about the Tudors of her own. I imagine it would have had a most different take on what we read from some authors.

  2. novelinsights

    This wasn’t my favourite Spark either, ah well – so many more to choose from!

  3. Muriel Spark is a name I’ve heard a lot but not read myself. I actually like the sound of this, have already checked online my library have a copy, so I know what I’ll be checking out on my next visit 🙂

    I had a very similar spell-breaking moment when I read the latest Miss Read book Christmas at Thrush Green. I was totally in the mindset of Miss Read’s Village School which I loved so much as a kid. I got a shock when cassette players were mentioned lol! Because her books aren’t set that far in the past but are enough to be nostalgic, cassettes are just too close to now.

    • This would be a great book to start with for Spark actually, because it has some of her trademark writing style and wry wit and yet you have even better ones to look forward to in the future.

      Its weird how these modernisms can break a spell isnt it, and its only with certain authors too!

  4. This might sound weird, but anytime an author mentions a specific brand name, I feel disconnected from the book. I don’t know why this is exactly, but I think it has something to do with the double-edged nature of details. You need enough to create the character/world, but too many and it starts to seem uncanny.

  5. Ah, you’ve changed your blog’s design since my last visit!

    I’ve read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Comforters but not this one. I don’t care for name brands mentioned in contemporary books either, although I don’t seem to mind them as much in older books.

    • I have indeed Suko, went for something a little simpler and more mono.

      An interesting point you ahve made as I noticed in a Conan Doyle recently they mention a brand and because it helps set the scene so far in the past it doesnt jar. If it was modern it would, why is that I wonder?

  6. Yes, as you saw mid-week, this wasn’t a favourite of mine either because a) it was lacking the wickedness that I have grown to love in Spark b) the modern setting you mentioned, that dated it for me (even if only six years ago).

    I hope you enjoy Memento Mori when you read it.

    • Oh I love ‘lacking with wickedness’ you are right too wickedness it lacked, there was a ray of hope with the scene in the bathroom… an opportunity missed hee hee.

  7. It may not be the best of her novels, and certainly not the Sparkian quirkiest, but it is one of my favorites.

  8. This is in the stacks here and may be read sooner than later due to the relation between its short length and my reading slump. I skipped a bit of this review as not to spoil my reading but I will definitely go into it with some of your thoughts in mind!

  9. I am in love with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Will read The finishing School, for sure

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  10. Pingback: The Finishing School by Muriel Spark | Iris on Books

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