Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review: Saving Miss Oliver's by Stephen Davenport

My high school was a small, prestigious independent school. While I was there, there were currents swirling around that we students picked up on but certainly far more that we didn't. We had strong, unasked for opinions on the redesign of the school's seal (we called the new, expensive one the Chiquita banana seal). We felt more than actually knew some of the administrative or board issues. But mostly we were along for the ride, the underpinnings of the school's running hidden from us. This is probably true for most students at schools all over the country. Unless there is a compelling reason for them to look closer and be more engaged, they are focused on their own studies and getting into college, moving onto the next phase of their lives. In Stephen Davenport's novel Saving Miss Oliver's, there is no hiding the strife and turmoil or the two very real, very unlikable possibilities that the school may have to go coed or close given its financial situation. No one can just continue to keep their head in the sand and hope it all goes away. Because it just might.

Miss Oliver's School for Girls is in dire financial trouble. The larger than life, much admired headmistress for the past 35 years, Marjorie Boyd, was not the best financial steward and she has been let go. Her replacement, Fred Kindler (a man! running a girl's school!), is definitely not being universally welcomed. Charged with turning the school's direction around in just one year, if Fred can't make up the financial shortfall, the school will either have to start admitting boys or close its doors permanently. Both of these options horrify the students and the alumnae. Francis Plummer could help Fred, and the support and approval of the popular, legendary teacher would go a long way to ensuring Fred's success. But Francis liked Marjorie and cannot overcome his otherwise unfounded dislike for the new headmaster. Peggy, Francis' wife and the school librarian, on the other hand, thinks that Fred's tenure is a chance to right the ship and she's going to do what she can to back him. One failing school, one marriage in turmoil, Fred's sad personal history kept secret from the students and staff, and the discovery of Native artifacts on school land, among other things, makes for a complicated story indeed.

All of the pieces of an engrossing story are here but somehow they don't quite gel. Fred seems ineffective and rather unprepared for the job he's taken. Francis is acting like a cranky child. No one has the courage to confront anyone else with the truth or to act like adults. And the underhanded conniving that goes on from the board on down, while perhaps realistic, isn't all that fun to read. Really this is Mean Girls pitted against each other in a school's struggle to survive. The writing itself is fine but the story drags and by the end I didn't really know whether I wanted the school and these people to survive or not, not that the eventual outcome was ever in doubt. Usually I love books set in schools or academia adjacent but this one, surprisingly, was not for me.

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