Book Review: School for Love by Olivia Manning


Final day of NYRB Classics Reading Week
Well, I started out out strong (and organized) with my NYRB posts this week. I planned ahead so I would have a variety of stuff to write about this week, but then things got very busy and time slipped away. And now I sit here with my mind somewhat blank. I am in London right now and going to meet up with a bunch of UK bloggers this afternoon so I just feel a bit distracted. It is kind of interesting that I am wrapping up my participation in NYRB Classics Reading Week just in time to go visit Persephone Books for the first time. Persephone and NYRB Classics have much in common, rescuing long forgotten quality fiction in beautiful, quality editions.
I finished the last 20 pages of School for Love on the plane. In fact, quite unusual for me, those were the only 20 pages I read on the whole six hour, twenty minute-flight. Normally on a transatlantic flight I get lots of reading done, but John and I were both so wiped out that we skipped the in flight meal and just about everything else and slept for about five hours. I don’t think I have ever managed to sleep that much at once in a coach seat. It was great, the flight whizzed by and we got to London feeling really refreshed. But it meant that I didn’t get much reading done.
School for Love is the story of an English teenager, Felix Latimer who finds himself in Jerusalem in 1945. Orphaned while living with his parents in Iraq, he is unable to get passage back to England in the final days of WWII. He is sent off to live with Miss Bohun, a friend of his father’s family. Miss Bohun is a stingy, churchy, old maid–the kind that gives old maids a bad name She runs a miserable boarding house taking advantage of her lodgers by charging them the going, rather exorbitant, rate but maintaining near poverty-like conditions in the house. All the while acting like she is doing them all a favor. Her duplicity about the cost of lodging is echoed in her duplicity in spirit. A holier-than-thou Christian waiting for the second coming, she acts in a most dishonest and un-Christ-like way to Felix and the others who live in the house. Perhaps worse than her meanness of spirit is the fact that she tries to cover it up with her piety.
The teenage Felix matures while staying with Miss Bohun. Like a child when he arrives, he reveres Miss Bohun thinking that others who think less of her are being unkind and unjust. But as the story unfolds Felix begins to see her for what she is. However, much to my chagrin, Miss Bohun never gets her comeuppance. In fact, just the opposite. I think School for Love is probably meant to teach us something profound about the human need for love, but I found Miss Bohun to be such a meany, I didn’t want to sympathize with her at all. I would have loved to have seen her transformed, but Manning seems intent on making us love unpleasant Miss Bohun just as she is. Might be a profound message, but it didn’t obviate my desire to see her get what she deserved.
Despite my slight disappointment with the ending, I really enjoyed School for Love. In addition to telling the somewhat emotional tale of each of the characters, it describes life in a very diverse and interesting Jerusalem, which is both literally and figuratively foreign to me. And there are moments of humor, like when Miss Bohun presses one of her adult private students into harvesting her mulberry bush as part of his lesson. And she seems to be using somewhat antiquated texts that seem most unhelpful for teaching English as a second language. One has a hard time imagining how sounding out the word “postillion” is going to be of much value to someone trying to learn the basics of English.
This was my favorite of the three NYRB Classics I read this week. But none of them came close to some of the brilliant titles I blogged about earlier in the week. I wouldn’t say the three I read this week are necessarily lesser works, but they just didn’t catch my imagination as the others did.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: School for Love by Olivia Manning

  1. irisonbooks November 13, 2010 / 6:32 am

    Sometimes books that don't give the “bad” person what they deserve in the end get under my skin much more because they irritate me so much! This one is, inevitably, added to my wishlist.


  2. Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks November 13, 2010 / 7:52 pm

    As I was reading through your review, I am struck by the title “School for Love” – I am sure it must have had a great significance in the narrative, seeing how seemingly-devoid of real affection the characters seem to have for each other (at least the way you characterized it) – I like the cover and texts dealing with middle eastern realities, i'd probably look this up when I'm up for some adult lit. =)


  3. novelinsights November 13, 2010 / 8:31 pm

    I hope that Persephone Books lived up to your expectations. Thank you for organising a lovely afternoon by the way.

    It sounds as if this was an enjoyable and interesting book, but perhaps didn't blow you away.

    Right. I'm off to find out what 'postillion' means!


  4. fantaghiro23 November 14, 2010 / 7:50 am

    What a coincidence. I also planned more posts for our NYRB Reading Week, but things got busy for me, too. Plus, I also spent the last day of the reading week in a get-together with fellow Filipino book bloggers. Isn't it grand how life gets in the way?

    I have to say, of the three books you reviewed this week, this is the one that interests me the most, too. (Of course, we both read Skylark.) Anyway, I'm interested to see why the character doesn't get her comeuppance, so I think this'll go on my wishlist, too.

    Thank you for your great participation in our reading week!


  5. gatheringbooks November 14, 2010 / 8:55 am

    I'm glad to have read your review on this book. I've seen this book on the shelves of the nearby bookshop for days now. I keep wondering whether to get it or not. After reading your review, I do believe, I'm going to enjoy it.


  6. Frances November 14, 2010 / 11:40 am

    It seems that in many NYRB offerings, endings are not easy. A theme almost. But what I find is that it often defines the characters in much more powerful ways than if their difficulties were somehow improbably resolved. And I am sure you agree. :)

    Hope that your outing to Persephone was everything you hoped for, and that you enjoyed all the UK blogger friends.


  7. Vintage Reading November 14, 2010 / 7:52 pm

    I was only browsing through a biography of Olivia Manning in the library yesterday. I liked The Balkan Trilogy and I'd like to read this. Enjoyed your review.


  8. Francine Gardner November 14, 2010 / 8:31 pm

    I am thrilled to have found your blog. I try to read as much as free time will allow. I enjoy Jane Smiley's novels and see that she wrote the introduction of School for love. I am about to tackle the Modern library 100 Best list…


  9. Thomas at My Porch November 15, 2010 / 4:14 am

    Iris: Part of my dislike for Miss Bohun is based on the fact that I see a lot of her type in real life (and politics) today and no one ever calls them out on their hypocrisy.

    Myra: I think you are right. Thinking about it a little longer, the title definitely touches on the situation of every character, even the cat.

    Polly: It did, it did. I had to look up postillion myself.

    Honey: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for hosting.

    Gatheringbooks: That's good.

    Frances: Many of them are challenging in many ways. Not often easy reads, but at their worst they are at least worthwhile reads.


  10. Thomas at My Porch November 15, 2010 / 4:16 am

    Vintage Reading: This was my introduction to Olivia Manning. If not for NYRB I wouldn't know who she was.

    Francine: Glad you like it. I have much I could say about the Modern Libary list. I take it you have seen my tab at the top that deals with it. Also, there is a blogger in Philly who has dedicated her blog to reading the list. There is much on it that is fantastic. And some not so much.


  11. Kari November 19, 2010 / 4:24 pm

    We read this a few months back in my book club, and I think what interested everyone was not so much the story but the setting. Jerusalem in 1945 was interesting because it just seemed a temporary spot for people on their way to somewhere else. Israeli/Palestinian conflict was in its very early stages (as hinted at in the book) but for the most part, people were peacefully coexisting in the city. I remember wishing more attention had been placed on the setting than the people, because that Miss Bohun was awful!


  12. C.B. James November 21, 2010 / 2:54 pm

    I read and reviewed School for Love for the NYRB Reading Week as well. I think I liked it more than you did.

    Olivia Manning is not the sort of writer to give anyone what they deserve for the sake of narrative closure. She's much more true to life. Her characters deal with eachother for a time, and then move on to someplace else and to other people.

    I still find this sort of ending satisfying, but not in the same way I would if Miss Bohun had gotten what she deserved.

    If you haven't read The Balkan Trilogy, do put them on your TBR list. They are all wonderful and there is something of a pay-off in the end of the last one.


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