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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Finishing School

Muriel Spark

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To purchase The Finishing School

Title: The Finishing School
Author: Muriel Spark
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 181 pages
Availability: The Finishing School - US
The Finishing School - UK
The Finishing School - Canada
A bonne école - France
Der letzte Schliff - Deutschland
Invidia - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : has considerable charm, but ultimately too thin

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 11/2004 James Wood
Daily Telegraph . 6/3/2004 Claudia FitzHerbert
FAZ . 25/7/2005 Maria Frisé
The Guardian A+ 20/3/2004 Ali Smith
The Independent . 22/3/2004 Bryan Cheyette
London Rev. of Books . 15/12/2005 Susan Eilberg
The NY Rev. of Books . 18/11/2004 John Lanchester
The NY Times D 8/10/2004 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/9/2004 Thomas Mallon
The Observer . 14/3/2004 Adam Mars-Jones
People . 25/10/2004 Lee Aitken
Scotland on Sunday F 29/2/2004 Andrew Crumey
The Scotsman . 6/3/2004 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 28/2/2004 P.N.Furbank
Sunday Telegraph . 7/3/2004 Jane Shilling
TLS . 5/3/2004 Ruth Scurr
The Washington Post . 17/9/2004 Carolyn See

  Review Consensus:

  Most think it's not quite equal to her best, but entertaining enough, but a few had extreme reactions (positive and negative)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Spark seems to want to raise a discussion of how writers create and control characters, but such a discussion gets dispersed and too easily distracted by more-superficial subjects. In particular. Spark's irritation with the current literary scene, its triviality and populism, seems to make her book keep falling into sharp but weightless satire on these matters. (She is very funny about publishers.)" - James Wood, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Spark, while dispensing with many of the conventional attributes of the novel, never forgets to keep us guessing. We don't know, and we want to know, what happens next. (...) Persuasiveness, though, is never sacrificed to unpredictability." - Claudia FitzHerbert, Daily Telegraph

  • "Der letzte Schliff, Muriel Sparks jüngster Roman, ist alles andere als schwergewichtig. Die Einfälle sind durchsichtig, die Handlung ziemlich dünn und konstruiert. Routine ersetzt Überraschungen -- und dennoch entsteht eine Spannung bis zur letzten Seite." - Maria Frisé, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This is a work, as usual, of glittering Sparkian ice, whose thinly frozen surface tempts you to jump up and down jovially above something deeper and darker than Loch Ness. One wonders at the simplicity and the intricacy of the plot, blowaway as gossamer, all red herrings and trivia and complication. (...) It is one of her funniest novels. Its lightness is close to cartoon, its fluency is astonishingly athletic. Lithe and blithe and philosophical, it makes it possible to dismiss the malevolent" - Ali Smith, The Guardian

  • "While the novel tends to move in and out of focus, Spark has lost none of her narrative cunning nor her dextrous language. She remains utterly preoccupied with human singularity." - Bryan Cheyette, The Independent

  • "The book is bad. But what is most shocking about The Finishing School is not its crudeness (which is nevertheless astonishing) or its tedium (which is a surprise) or even its apparent contempt for the reader. It is that it gives every sign of knowing just how bad it is, rages against its own badness, hides humiliation behind its own self-evidence." - Susan Eilberg, London Review of Books

  • "Spark is, it is clear, having fun in The Finishing School. (...) She doesn't spare her characters any more than she ever does, but here the exposures and stupidities are at the lighter end of her palette." - John Lanchester, The New York Review of Books

  • "The problem is that The Finishing School reads more like a parody of a Muriel Spark novel than the real thing. (...) (T)his novel is a spindly, desiccated production -- less a full-fledged story than a cursory sketch. The author's acutely moral vision has devolved in these pages into a shrill contempt for human behavior, a Hobbesian-lite view of the world." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Whatever her religious beliefs, her style has always been more profane than sacred, and for stretches of The Finishing School it remains as sharp, even shocking, as it's always been." - Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)he book gives the impression of being oddly insubstantial, even when it deals with worlds such as publishing and selling film rights with which this author is profoundly familiar. Only occasionally is there a reminder of the Spark's manner at its best, with all its uncharitable lustre" - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "The only really positive thing I can say about The Finishing School is that I enjoyed its first page, and was never bored during the remaining 154, since I was propelled by the conviction that something interesting would surely happen eventually. I was wrong. (...) This book is an embarrassment." - Andrew Crumey, Scotland on Sunday

  • "For this is one of the charms of this novella: that, though its central theme is the corrosive and corrupting power of jealousy, the mood is sunny and utterly delightful. The students are all so young, so charming, so agreeably inconsequential, and so confident." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "What a rich seam Spark has quarried here. Moreover, it is cunning how, to the extent her purpose requires, she exploits the readerís own jealousies or envies, in regard to these imagined students, so rich, so beautiful, so unanxious and so dreadfully young." - P.N.Furbank, The Spectator

  • "(H)er own noticing faculties are in a state of crystalline sharpness, delineating a world of detail so fine (...) that there is no need to crack the surface to find what lies beneath. The inner workings are all there, visible and faintly absurd, as though fixed in a translucent sheet of fictional ice." - Jane Shilling, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Because The Finishing School explores jealousy in a school environment, it wittily recalls Spark's best-known book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" - Ruth Scurr, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Has all of Rowland's envy been for nothing ? Or is another whole story going on just beneath the surface of daily events, a story that various people glimpse from time to time, but then that story vanishes, elusive until the very end ?" - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Finishing School is a very light entertainment, a cheerful, almost fluffy novella. There's a good bit of tension, entertaining personal conflict, and a large, amusing cast of characters (nicely if generally rather hurriedly sketched out), the book moving along at a brisk pace -- skimming, for much of the time, the surface, it seems.
       The finishing school of the title is College Sunrise, a small, fairly new establishment. One of the special things about it is that it is an itinerant institution, based for one year in one city, then off to the next. For the period covered in the novel, it is set in Lausanne. It was founded and is run by the husband-and-wife team of Rowland Mahler and Nina Parker, both still in their twenties. They have only a few students, but that is enough.
       Rowland is an aspiring novelist, and one of the classes he teaches is creative writing. One of his students is Chris Wiley, who has literary ambitions of his own and is working on an historical novel about the murder of Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Chris, in fact, looks to be the more promising talent. His youth (he's only seventeen) helps create some additional interest in the manuscript, and Rowland winds up becoming obsessively jealous (and writer-blocked).
       The conflict between the two -- an odd sort of game of mutual dependence, fascination, and jealousy -- is the central story in the book, but among the nice touches are the stories of the other students and a few other figures, told, in part, almost en passant, but often quite (melo)dramatic (and enjoyably bizarre).
       Chris' literary promise looks to find him great success, but things don't work out quite as he hopes. Meanwhile, Rowland eventually makes the best of his sudden inability to write fiction, turning to a different sort of writing. All the while passion (and the lack thereof) bubbles all over, with the obvious consequences.
       Rowland recognises:

I know I'm obsessed with Chris, but I want my obsession. So does he.
       Obsession can be a dangerous thing, and it certainly is here, but neither can escape their dance of mutual dependence. The conclusion, quickly related, almost as an afterthought, is not completely unexpected, but quite a radical one.
       The Finishing School zips along, but the very short chapters and sections do relate a good deal. Without much elaboration, Spark nevertheless conveys her scenes -- and this odd school-world -- well. There is, ultimately, not quite enough to it, but as fast entertainment the novella is surprisingly rich, and there's a good deal here that is quite fun.

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The Finishing School: Reviews: Muriel Spark: Other books by Muriel Spark under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Muriel Spark lived 1918 to 2006.

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© 2004-2022 the complete review

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