reviews Escape Theory HHH
Margaux Froley, Soho Teen, 288pp, 978-1616951276, £12.99 hbk
This is the first of a potential series set in Keaton School, a prestigious co-ed boarding school on the Californian coast. Keaton is not on any spectrum from, say, Malory Towers to Roedean or Eton, let alone Hogwarts. They do things differently here. Sixteen year old scholarship student Devon Mackintosh is just beginning her Junior (penultimate) year. But we begin with a flashback to her first week at the school two years earlier, featuring a nocturnal adventure involving eating Nutter Butters, searching for milk in the school kitchens only minutes before Curfew, witty dialogue and an electric moment of connection with the charismatic
Hutchinson, a student whose family are steeped in Keaton tradition. Back in her Junior year and Devon is about to become Keaton’s first Peer Counsellor, fresh from what sounds like a mechanistic training course in techniques, run by Mr Robins, Keaton’s adult Counsellor. So far, just about, so good. But, and this is the kind of But to stretch a British reader’s credulity, her first clients (her peers, remember) are there to talk about how they are handling Hutch’s death. Really? Yes, Hutch has apparently taken his own life, the entire school is in trauma, so let’s get the kids to lay it all out there to a novice counsellor who is a classmate. Not even in California….
From this point on, I found the shenanigans at Keaton hard to believe. Okay, money is everything here, a kind of value in itself, and one that might generate extraordinary behaviour. Hutch’s home is in the legendary Marin County, just over the bridge from San Francisco; it used to be the site, at least in novels, of some of the more bizarre extremes of affluent American self-indulgence. Keaton is awash with drugs and dealers, romances, jealousy, the odd pregnancy. Not only is Devon hearing students’ angst about Hutch, she is also assigned clients who have been caught shoplifting in the local town. Lessons (as in most school stories, admittedly) are a sideshow to the real business of the school: relationships. Everywhere there are questions. Who has stolen Devon’s Mont Blanc fountain pen? Why was one of Jason’s last acts to purchase a pregnancy test kit? The confidences Devon’s counselling role reveal prompt her suspicion that Hutch’s death is no suicide. All of this in an environment dripping with wealth and privilege where most of the teaching staff are invisible or indifferent to what’s happening.
Margaux Froley, say her publishers, is herself a ‘boarding school veteran and a connoisseur of all things YA’. I know things have changed since I taught this age group in an affluent American suburb back in the wild sixties. So, everything here might just about be factually plausible, but Froley did not
make me believe in the essential plot device of Devon’s peer counselling assignments which give her the evidence to play detective. Will young British readers be less sceptical? It’s true, they bought heavily into the teenage improbabilities of Twilight, but this time there is no alluring sexual fantasy driving the plot. I doubt if there is the same likelihood of a massive UK cult following here.
GF Just One Day HHHH
Gayle Forman, Definitions/Random House, 369 pp, 978 1 849 41566 8, £6.99, pbk
The title tells only half the story, for our American heroine records a momentous 24 hours in England and Paris which finishes painfully on p142. Then, from pp143 - 292, we join her in her freshman college year, where the day’s events hang over her. Finally, from p293 onwards, we return with her to Paris and thence to the Netherlands to sort out the impact of that single day. All that’s left is the opening of just one year, the sequel; and three pages of Acknowledgements which are so fulsome and personal you’d prefer not to know.
That one day begins in Stratford-on-Avon where earnest, hard-working Allyson Healey, just graduated from High School, is completing a ‘Teen Tours! Cultural Extravaganza’ whistle-stop trip around Europe, a reward from Mom and Dad for her good grades. Except Allyson and friend Mel, in an uncharacteristic act of rebellion, decide to give Hamlet a miss (seen it before) and head off to a free per formance of Twelfth Night by alternative company, Guerrilla Will, over by the canal basin. Here, in the twinkling of a glance, Allyson is magnetised by Sebastian (or the actor playing him), which is quite something when you think what a thankless role Sebastian has.
That’s the trigger. One thing leads to many others, Allyson is suddenly shedding the parental constraints of a lifetime, the plot moves swiftly to London with Sebastian (aka Willem) and thence to Paris via Eurostar and a wild and wonderful day there. And at the end of it, a night of passion which Allyson has never known before. And in the morning, she wakes to find he’s gone. Except, surely, surely, she can’t have been so wrong about him.
Cut to first year at medical school in Boston (everything preordained by Mom). All her peers are Happy College Students, but Allyson’s spirit, freed by that one day, cannot settle to directions she has not chosen. The year becomes one of change, learning, revolt, and emerging independence, much of it released by the charismatic Professor Glenny’s Shakespeare class. Despite the prof’s self-conscious style (compare the smug Robin Williams character in Dead Poets’ Society), Allyson begins to find and trust herself,
14+ Secondary/Adult Infinite Sky
C J Flood Simon and Schuster 288pp 978-0857078025, £9.99 hbk.
Infinite Sky is C J Flood’s debut novel, and she has chosen to write about heavy-weight themes: first love, family breakdown, the sudden violent death of a young person.
The story is set in the recent past (the seventies?) and takes place during a hot, dry summer. It is narrated by thirteen year old Iris. Iris’s mother left the family in the spring, and has gone to Tunisia in a camper van in search of adventure. This has hit Iris’s dad and brother, Sam, very hard and Iris is left lonely and isolated. When a family of Travellers set up camp in the paddock
next to their farmhouse, she watches them in secret, envying their apparent closeness. She’s drawn too to the teenage son, and soon the two are friends, Iris sneaking out without her father’s knowledge to spend time with Trick. Hidden in their den in the cornfield, or during secret midnight swims in the lake, their relationship intensifies. The presence of the Travellers, and Iris’s feelings for Trick, are the catalyst for a shocking series of events that ends in tragedy.
C J Flood writes very well and this is an assured debut. As a latter day version of Romeo and Juliet it can’t be anything but intensely moving. It’s the smaller details that really impress however, and in par ticular the descriptions of the Derbyshire countryside, providing moments of quiet amongst the high drama: sunlight stabbing through ash and willow to make a spotlight on the stepping stones; chub sliding beneath the sur face of brownish water; the bright red cardinal beetle crawling along a piece of rotting bark that reminds Iris of her dad, conspicuous in his unwavering certainty of how things should be.AR
not least through her working partner Drew, a black student from NYC. There are several illuminating pages in which the interplay between Allyson, Drew and As You Like It’s Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando makes for one of those moments of perception when literature
tells you something startling about another part of your life – in this case, that day in Paris.
And so, Allyson heads for Europe (having earned her own money for the trip) in search of Willem (and, yes, her self) to uncover the mystery of why he
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