This interlibrary loan request was, like many of my requests, an impulse. Edward Candy (a pseudonym for Barbara Alison Neville) was qualified as a doctor (one of a surprising number of women doctors on my Overwhelming List—a sub-list may be coming at some point...), but left the profession to raise her family. I first came across her when Lisa Perry mentioned enjoying her three mystery novels, but ultimately my fascination with novels about schools won out over my love for good mysteries, and this summary of Parents' Day from detecs.org sealed the deal:
Parents' Day is all about the interaction of parents, staff and teenagers during the annual parents' day at Cilrheddyn, a small coeducational boarding school in Pembrokeshire. The characters are well delineated, but not very much happens and no crime or detection is involved.
Not exactly a rave review, but it proved enough for me.
The novel features a dizzying array of characters and hops lightly from one set to another. Owen and Helen Pinnegar—who name all their children from Thomas Hardy novels, including Jude, Tess, Tamsin, and Diggory—have just discovered that Owen is dying, but Owen determines to attend the parents' day anyway, to play in a Mozart recital with Jude, who is a narcissistic prodigy. Meg Lindsay is the school's matron, whose promising career as a doctor was cut short by her seduction and its resulting pregnancy (echoes of Neville's own experiences, perhaps?), and she will today have to meet the brother of her seducer, who is one of the parents. Then there's Vincent Hardy and his second wife, Dinah, whose son/stepson Daniel has run away as the novel opens. They bring along Vincent's mother, a domestic dominatrix if there ever was one, who wallows in self-pity and exhausts herself with her snarking.
And there's more. There's Henry and Emma Branksom and their slow-for-his-age son Robert, whom they are considering sending to the school. There are interesting relations between several of the students, including Tess's friends Nancy, who has already resigned herself to being a spinster, and Kate, who is comparatively shallow and an unmitigated flirt. And I'm sure there are even more that I've forgotten.
|Barbara Alison Nevil (aka Edward Candy)|
Quite an array of characters for a 192 page novel! It did occasionally get just a bit overwhelming, but overall the characters were so interesting that I couldn't stop turning the pages. In its subject matter, Parent's Day occasionally evokes my favorite school novel, Mary Bell's Summer's Day, which also mixes the experiences of staff and parents with those of some of the students. But in its handling this novel is far closer to Ivy Compton-Burnett's More Women than Men, with a considerable helping hand from Iris Murdoch which shows up in the characters' periodic questioning of the big issues, like life and death or good and evil. For example, this exchange between Meg and Peter, one of the male students, could have been lifted directly from Dame Ivy:
"Was it Daniel who was in Tess Pinnegar's tent, then?" Meg said, handing him a forgotten tray at the dining room door. "I am glad it was Daniel, and not you."
"What did she mean by that?" Peter said with the smirk of one who knows very well what is meant.
"I think she meant that we all trust Daniel," Celia said. "We all know he is thoroughly sensible."
"What a thing to know about anybody!" Peter said. "I am glad nobody even suspects that of me."
"You should not pretend to be worse than you are, Peter. It is such a silly pose."
"I thought it would be less silly than pretending to be better. At least, less ordinary."
Or, a bit later, Diggory Pinnegar makes this similarly Compton-Burnett-esque observation:
"Matthew says the Victorians thought all little children were as good as angels," Diggory said, "and that was why they kept on beating them, because they were always being disappointed."
If you're not a Compton-Burnett fan, though, that doesn't necessarily mean whis novel isn't for you. Candy/Neville is not as unrelenting in the use of dialogue, nor is all of her dialogue as stiffly philosophical and unrealistic as Dame Ivy was prone to write.
|Cover of a later novel featuring an|
enthusiastic blurb about Parents' Day
Parents' Day has shades of soap opera, which is surely intentional and self-referential (and perhaps even a bit postmodern) as Vincent and Dinah are screenwriters for a television soap opera set in a school. They incessantly discuss the scripted alter-ego of the real-world school they're visiting, and provide some of the most interesting and amusing passages in the novel. Dinah comes across rather as a blithering idiot who can barely distinguish reality from fiction, while Vincent is cynical and calculating in the ways in which he tidies up reality to reach a larger audience. Here they are just after discovering that Daniel is avoiding them:
There were few things Dinah could not conceive of, and Daniel's defection was not among them.
"Oh, Vincent, really, there is no need to look so stunned! You know very well how unpredictable boys of Daniel's age can be. There was Terry—remember what a time the school had with him, six or seven episodes ago."
"But this is a real boy, my son, and a real school. This is actually happening, Dinah, Daniel is hiding from us!"
"Yes, it is thrilling to see how right we were about Terry; remember how horrified his parents were—they felt they had done everything for him and then the boy simply cut himself off; we were absolutely on the ball there, Vincent; their reaction was exactly what yours is now, ours, I ought to say."
Dinah sees everyone around her as grist for her screenwriting mill, and one can easily see why Daniel would like to stay away from them as long as possible. Particularly in view of Dinah's explanation of why Daniel was send to Cilrheddyn in the first place:
"My husband's son, my stepson, is handsome too; that is really one reason why we sent him to school down here. He is not so very much younger than I am, and it would be too sad if anything like Phedre developed."
"That was only one of the reasons," Vincent said while Emma glanced at Harry in alarm, which her husband's ignorance of Racine made quite superfluous. "Daniel is a bright boy who needed more individual attention than he would get at an ordinary grammar school."
Oh, dear. As we see no evidence that Daniel takes any interest in Dinah whatsoever, it seems rather more likely that Dinah—clearly much younger than Vincent—is imagining Daniel's potential attraction to her for her own narcissistic pleasure and for how it might spice up their lives and provide fuel for her writing.
I found Parents' Day as entertaining and compelling as a soap opera. If the ending felt like a bit of an anticlimax, that's possibly just my failure as a reader, but it doesn't change the fact that I couldn't put the book down for two days. I don't think I could wholeheartedly choose this novel as a reprint for my fantasy publishing house, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, but if I were to kick things up a notch and begin Furrowed Middlebrow Productions, then there's no question I would start development on Parents' Day the BBC mini-series without delay. It seems like a perfect candidate for dramatization.
Just one final quote because I can't just leave that earlier reference to Iris Murdoch hanging, and this is one of the most striking passages of the novel and one which makes Daniel a particularly intriguing and likeable character. For those of you who are fans of Murdoch, couldn't you see this as having been penned by the brilliant Dame Iris?:
Daniel awoke with a start: a mouse had run up his arm, its whiskers brushed against his neck. For a moment he could not grasp what had happened, and thought it was a spider or something else offensive and cold-blooded. He dashed the back of his hand against his throat and the little animal was knocked on to the pew beside him. He put out a hand to pick it up, but it whisked out of his reach and down to the floor faster almost than his glance could follow. He was glad his thoughtless movement had not injured it, and somehow pleased that his sleeping self had seemed so little of a menace.