Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: The School Run

By Jami Deise

Is there a parent alive who doesn’t love and dread driving their children around? Those times in the car can feature wonderful, uninterrupted conversations with your child – if she’s not too busy texting her friends. But they can also be a source of great frustration – horrible traffic, late children, carpooling… When my son was in elementary school, I would pick him up at school and immediately drive him into the city 45 minutes away for baseball practice, while he changed into his uniform in the back seat. Those were great times, when he wasn’t kicking me in the head.

Carpooling children is the organizing principle of Sophie King’s The School Run, a 2005 bestseller that was recently released as an e-book. “The school run” is a British term that means “dropping off or picking up the children at school.” Perhaps that is self-evident, but I didn’t know that before reading the book. The British certainly have a way with words and pithy phrases.

The novel centers around seven adults : Harriet, Pippa, Evie, and Nick, all parents with children at St. Theresa’s (which features both an upper and lower school); Kitty, a teacher at St. Theresa’s; Martine, a French au pair who cares for two children at St. Theresa’s; and Betty, who lives across the street from the school and who once had a child there. The point-of-view shifts among each main character with every chapter, and the action takes place during a single week right before the start of summer. Harriet is a stay-at-home mom with a marriage in jeopardy; Pippa is having a health crisis; Evie has a laid-off husband and two mean-girl stepdaughters; and Nick is a widower with a teenage daughter. Kitty teaches one of Harriet’s children. Martine sometimes participates in a carpool with Harriet and Pippa when she’s not thinking evil thoughts about her charges and her employers or making plans with her married lover. And Betty suffered a tragedy two years ago that has left her mentally ill.

A few months ago, I reviewed King’s Tales from the Heart, and enjoyed her short stories very much. I found The School Run equally engrossing. Each main character’s story and situation are unique and compelling. Almost all characters are empathetic and three-dimensional. Harriet’s husband complains she put their children’s needs before his, and now she’s worried that he’s involved with someone else. Pippa’s health crisis has her terrified of dying young and leaving her children motherless. Evie’s employer has absolutely no concern whatsoever for her balancing act. And Nick blames himself for his wife’s death, and is terrified their daughter might be too much like her. The only two characters who don’t work for me are Martine and Kitty. Martine is a nit-filled husband-snatcher who hates her charges – granted, those kids are brats and her employers treat her like a slave. And Kitty is harmless, but as a single teacher, her circumstances are so different from the others, that I wasn’t as interested in her story.

As the novel progresses and culminates, King weaves various threads of each character’s story together, and also delivers a pretty good head fake. She plants subtle clues from the very beginning of the novel that pay off in the end. I did have a few problems with the ending, though. There’s a crisis at the school that, to me, doesn’t seem to fit tone-wise with the domestic dramas that dominate the book. There’s a lack of tension toward this particular event – perhaps if King had included a parent of one of the kids who instigates the crisis, she could have created a stronger build-up. And, this particular crisis seemed to be resolved too quickly and easily. Similarly, the climax of Betty’s story is over before any real consequences are seen.

Harriet, Evie, and Pippa are all likeable women, but they are similar enough, from a voice and personality perspective, that I had trouble discerning the women from each other as I progressed through the chapters. I often needed to stop reading and actively remember who was whom. And Evie commits what most American women would consider an unforgiveable crime – leaving her two-year-old alone in her car, both times with bad results. I understand that Europeans are a lot more cavalier about leaving their children alone, but it still struck me as irresponsible – especially when she did it again after it blew up in her face.
Overall, The School Run is an engaging read with highly relatable characters. Their day-to-day lives feature situations most parents will recognize and appreciate. Although the novel has a few flaws, they are overshadowed by its story and the careful way King brings together her characters.

Thanks to Corazon Books for the e-book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Sophie King:

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