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Finishing School [Paperback]

Muriel Spark
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 26 2005
Passionately determined to write his novel whilst running College Sunrise, a finishing school for both sexes and mixed nationalities, Rowland Mahler is assisted by his wife, Nina Parker. This term there is a new star pupil - Chris, seventeen, also determined to write his masterpiece. As Chris's novel takes shape while his own flounders, Rowland becomes increasingly obsessed and The Finishing School becomes awash with his jealousy and envy. This new novel amply displays Muriel Spark's extraordinary talent: her cool, biting humour and unique vision of human nature.

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From Publishers Weekly

A swift, blithe comedy of sexual and creative jealousy plays out on the grounds of a dubious finishing school in Dame Spark's gem of a novel, her 22nd. College Sunrise, founded by would-be novelist Rowland Mahler and his practical wife, Nina Parker, is a mobile institution (currently situated in Lausanne) at which very little of use is taught. Rowland does preside over a popular creative writing class (with five students, it boasts more than half the school's enrollment), while Nina takes care of the office business and dispenses delicious advice in her informal etiquette seminars ("[I]f you, as a U.N. employee, are chased by an elephant stand still and wave a white handkerchief. This confuses the elephant's legs"). Trouble arrives in the form of redheaded, 18-year-old Chris Wiley, who has come to College Sunrise to work on his novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. Chris's authorial insouciance—he is supremely confident of his talents and rather dismissive of historical fact—infuriates Rowland, whose ego was inflated by minor early successes and who has a terrible case of writer's block. Rowland becomes obsessed with the novel and its creator, and their struggle—" 'I could kill him,' thought Rowland. 'But would that be enough?' "—forms the heart of the book, even as other players, sketched briefly but brilliantly (the "tall and lonely" Tilly, princess of an unknown and perhaps fictitious country; the sweet, stupid Mary Foot, who wants to own a "sahramix" [sic] shop) fall in and out of love and beds. Spark, who is 86, writes in a polished, rather old-fashioned tone (references to "punk music," laptops and other things of the modern world surprise), but this is a cool, delightful little book of bad deeds and good manners.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School - Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina, are directors of College Sunrise, a private school in Switzerland attended by nine free-spirited teens. Its location changes from year to year, the tuition is exorbitant, and the curriculum, anything but mainstream. Chris Wiley has enrolled for the sole purpose of writing a novel and does not attend classes. Others pursue a variety of interests that include drama, creative writing, and Nina's unique version of modern etiquette. Sex and alcohol are not discouraged, and while Nina and Rowland bring in the occasional guest speaker, they teach most of the classes with minimal educational expertise. In fact, the school itself is questionable as it caters to students who, for various reasons, are unable to attend established institutions. Because Chris and Rowland are concurrently writing books, tension between the two pervades the novel, and becomes its primary theme. Nina begins an affair with a neighbor, one of the students becomes pregnant by the gardener, and, at the end of the term, the school's continued existence is precarious. Spark seems to be laughing at 21st-century permissiveness with well-drawn characters and eloquent writing. High school students will enjoy reading about this fly-by-night "finishing" school and its unusual attendees. - Pat Bender, The Shipley School, Bryn Mawr, PA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars OK - But Not Her Best Dec 3 2008
Short and sweet novella but not one of her best. I found it pleasant enough to read but the plot was just little too contrived and pat to be truly satisfying. Rowland really ought to have stabbed David to death in Chapter 3. I will mention this to Muriel next time I see her - maybe she could bang out a revised version.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good... Feb. 6 2005
By A Customer
This is a really good novella, about what can happen when you let jealousy begin to control your life.
The protagonist is the headmaster at a travelling Finishing School, and grows insanely jealous over a bright pupil who is writing a novel at age 17.
Though the ending leaves a lot to be desired, this book proves it can be the journey and not just the destination.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sublimation in Switzerland Sept. 27 2004
By J. E. Barnes - Published on Amazon.com
The last decade has been a productive if uneven period for novelist Dame Muriel Spark, whose dynamic career in literature has now spanned over half a century. 'All The Stories of Muriel Spark' was published in 2001, 'The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark' in 2003, both 'All the Poems of Muriel Spark' and a four-novel Modern Library omnibus were published earlier this year, and an idiosyncratic selection of her older fiction is currently in print. 1996 saw the release of 'Reality and Dreams,' one of Spark's rare outright failures, and 'Aiding and Abetting' debuted in 2000. But 'Aiding and Abetting' was sketchy and insubstantial, and something of a failure as well.

Thus the good news is that 'The Finishing School' (2004), Spark's 22nd novel, is worthy of taking its place on a lower rung among her second tier works (1958's 'Robinson,' 1960's 'The Ballad of Peckham Rye,' 1968's 'The Public Image,' and 1973's 'The Hothouse By the East River,' among others).

Happily, 'The Finishing School' has a brisk tone which most resembles that of 'Territorial Rights' (1979) and the greatly underrated 'Symposium' (1990), and, like those novels, concerns itself largely with life among the wealthy and the privileged. The institution in question is Sunrise College, a mobile school in Switzerland that in any given semester has only a handful of students enrolled. Ironically, Sunrise College never seems entirely credible, and throughout feels exactly like what it is in fact: a convenient and mutable creative device for its author's use.

Nonetheless, 'The Finishing School' is a deft, if slight, meditation on creative frustration, envy, competition, and emotional displacement.

Rowland Mahler, who teaches creative writing and runs the school with his wife, Nina, is attempting to write his long-planned first novel.

But Rowland discovers that one of his young students, seventeen year-old Chris Wiley, has almost completed his own first novel on the life of Mary Queen of Scots.

Dazed and dazzled, as is everyone else, by Chris's charm, confidence, productivity, and talent, Rowland finds his own ability to write disappearing, and his lofty private image of himself as an author-to-be suffering painfully.

When plucky Chris finds a publisher with apparent ease, Rowland's thwarted creative drive switches gears, transforming into a malevolent obsession with his formerly prized pupil and friend.

'The Finishing School' glides effortlessly across its own clever and glossy surfaces, reflecting evidence of Spark's talent, but not her genius.

Spark once defended her occasionally harsh treatment of her characters by asserting that "they're just words," something certainly true of all the characters here except Rowland and Chris, who tend towards the three dimensional without ever quite arriving there.

Over the decades, the author has stated on multiple occasions that her novels are primarily intended as "entertainment," and 'The Finishing School,' a novella which casts a very short shadow, does succeed at being that.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Slim of plot, but acute in its scrutiny of artistic jealousy Oct. 23 2004
By D. Cloyce Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"The Finishing School" is a thread-bare novella--a sketch, really--about jealousy and the creative process. Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina, operate College Sunrise, a post-secondary school which moves from one European location to another, not merely for a change in ambience but mostly to outrun the school's piling debts. While Nina manages the school, Rowland is supposed to be writing his novel, but he's suffering from an intractable case of writer's block.

To put it more accurately: "Rowland was simply going mad with jealousy about the writing of novels." One of the school's students, the handsome and popular Chris Wiley, is discovered writing his own book--a historical work about Mary, Queen of Scots. Soon enough, Chris's novel has attracted both the attention of several publishers and the murderous envy of Rowland, who whines that Chris is "trying to pass himself off as a creative writer, when all he's doing is exploiting his looks and his youth." And Chris, in turn, discovers that he is unable work on his book without the motivating presence of Rowland's jealousy.

Added to this plot are a few random descriptions of the other students (and their familial backgrounds) and some generally blithe comments about society ("it's hypocrisy that makes the world go round"), etiquette ("if you are offered a plover's egg as a snack...you want your right hand to be free to shake someone else's hand [so] your left hand should hold the plover's egg"), and liberalism in education (Nina obliges when the students want "to be reminded of what an exam was like").

The slightness of Spark's 23nd novel is more than compensated by the sharpness of its observations on creativity and competitiveness. Like other British comedies of manners, "The Finishing School" is slim of plot and of character; instead, it's a work to be savored for its conciseness, its cynicism, and its occasional mean-spiritedness.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An original and entertaining novella Sept. 8 2005
By HORAK - Published on Amazon.com
Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina founded the College Sunrise in Ouchy, Switzerland. They are respectively 29 and 26 and they have nine students. Rowland teaches creative writing and in his spare time he aspires to become a novelist. But then his seventeen year old student Chris Wiley starts writing a novel about Mary Queen of Scots entitled "Who Killed Darnley" and Rowland suffers from writing block because he is jealous of the ease with which Chris's writing progresses. Rowland can't understand why his teenage pupil is able to write like a professional, how he can manage language so wonderfully and with so little experience. Nothing compared with his own dismal efforts at mediocre prose.

But as the reader progresses along the plot, he realises that nothing in Mrs Spark's novel is as it seems. The characters are well drawn, the scenes are often very amusing because they are laced with acute and witty observations about authors, publishers, school life, marital relationships and more generally about present day preoccupations.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Sparks' best, but a fine close to a great career June 25 2006
By Richard R. Horton - Published on Amazon.com
Muriel Spark continued to produce excellent stuff to the end of her life. Her first novel appeared some 50 years ago. Her last (assuming there is no posthumous work awaiting publication) was The Finishing School. Like most of her novels, it is very short (in the neighborhood of 30,000 words), and sardonic in tone. It invites comparison with her most famous novel, _The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie_, in being about a school and about the relationship of a teacher to the students.

The Finishing School is set at College Sunrise, a school run by Rowland Mahler, a 29 year old who had a long ago success with a play and is now frustratedly trying to write a novel, and his wife Nina Parker. The school moves each term -- in part, it is suggested, to escape bill collectors. It is in Switzerland this term. There are nine students, apparently all around 17 years old, presumably having finished high school or the European equivalent, and now being "finished" -- either to head on to University or to other pursuits. One of the students, Chris, is writing an historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots.

The fulcrum of the novel is Rowland's jealousy of Chris. It becomes clear that this jealousy, ostensibly of the likely smashing success of his novel, has a homoerotic component. (Even though both parties are apparently heterosexual -- Rowland is married, though his wife is having an affair and plans to leave him, while Chris seduces several women during the course of the book.) Rowland spends much of his time fantasizing about killing Chris. Chris, meanwhile, ignores his classes, writes his novel in secret, and entertains visits from publishers and film producers.

Flitting around this central conflict are the problems of the other students and staff. One girl plans to become a minister (shades of the nun-to-be in Prime), another's father is suspected of smuggling, a couple are trying to arrange to get married to one or another of the boy students. The staff are involved as well, sleeping with the students on occasion, and planning their own futures. And the neighbors, a young woman and her somewhat older nephew, are also drawn into the intrigue.

It is told, as ever with Spark, in a very spare fashion. Several months pass quickly, odd people are described doing odd things in the most deadpan of fashions, and by the end we know them fairly well and we know their fates. It is dryly funny, enjoyable to read and archly believable despite all the unusual characters. It is not, I think, nearly as good as Spark's best work -- in part it is not really about as much, I don't think -- but it is a fine piece of fiction.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Crisp, fresh, and witty Oct. 15 2004
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
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 THE FINISHING SCHOOL by Muriel Spark.

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 dropped.

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
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