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  • Sidebar book cover thumbnail pictures are affiliate links to Amazon, and the storefront links to Blackwell's and The Book Depository are also affiliated; should you purchase a book directly through those links, I will receive a small commission. Older posts may also contain affiliate links to one of those bookshops. I am not paid to produce content and all opinions are my own.

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adele geras

I agree with what you've said, Cornflower and think that the book is most enjoyable and interesting and very beautifully written but that BECAUSE it was so closely based on the author's own life, it told the truth and didn't add anything 'plotty' to the narrative to make it more like a traditional novel. That's to say: if it had been flagged as a memoir I'd have said it was excellent and given it five stars, but as it's so clearly true in almost every detail, I felt like you that the ending was a little....well, not flat, because with writing as good as this you're never left feeling cheated...but sort of disappointed that there isn't MORE. I don't know whether I've made myself clear, but I did love the book. Boys' schools are fascinating and this one in particular was a corker, wasn't it? And the gossipy elements about Frost, Hemingway and the hideous Ayn Rand were very well done. I have read both Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (I'm the same age as TW, I think and all teenagers were reading that stuff) but am very happy to say I remember nothing at all about either novel and am glad I don't!

Susie Vereker

Yes, I agree with your excellent review, but I did feel sufficiently involved with the bookish main protagonist and his efforts to keep up with the preppy Joneses. I couldn't quite understand his plagiarism (a sharp intake of breath while reading that part) - he seemed too intelligent not to know it was wrong. I suppose he had gone beyond reason obsessing about the prize. I will certainly re-read the book.
Yes, we did transfer rather suddenly from the hero's downfall to the back story about the Master's ultra-honourable scruples. I found that interesting and didn't mind the low-key ending, as it seemed in character.

GeraniumCat

I too found the book enjoyable and thought it beautifully written (I particularly liked the description of a boy "pretzeled" over in a chair) but I found it very hard to empathise with the narrator. So I read with pleasure at the elegance of the writing, but no real sense of engagement with characters or events. Perhaps this is why I felt that there was a disingenuousness about the apparent candour: what others saw as flat or lacking - what Cornflower describes as "arms-length" - I felt stemmed from over-intellectualisation.
I'm still thinking about the endpiece about Dean Makepeace, and what it does to the overall shape and tone of the novel, so I may come back and try to articulate that - I'm still fumbling at the moment.

BooksPlease

I loved this book but also found the ending unsatisfactory - a bit of a let-down in fact and over-long about Dean Makepeace. It made me want to reread Frost and read (for the first time) Hemingway, maybe not Ayn Rand, who came across as just awful.

I know nothing about Wolff, so it's interesting to read from Adele that this book is based on his own life. I loved that school story, and found the writing competition just so stressful - I could feel the tension as I was reading.

It's still all very fresh in my mind as I only finished reading it this morning. I think I'll re-read it as I read it so quickly. I couldn't believe his naivete about the plagiarism and kept thinking surely he'll make the story really his own.

A great choice of book and one of the best I've read recently.

Susie Vereker

OK, I’m having another go (hope this isn’t against the rules) I mainly read to enjoy these days, rather than to educate myself, but I did enjoy this novel. On reflection – which I don’t really have time for as 6 guests are about to arrive for the weekend – one could say it is a novel about youthful self-absorption and the urge to fit in. That even adults have a natural human desire to portray themselves as just a little bit cleverer - or better informed, or preppier or a better gardener (!) - than they are. And that even scrupulously honourable people like the Dean can err in this respect, hence his self-inflicted downfall.
(Of course, some people like to pretend they are less preppy than they are, e.g. our former PM.) Anyway, as I see it, the Dean's story does fit into the theme of the novel.

Frances Evangelista

Wolff's lean and precise prose is beautiful, isn't it? Like the rest of you, I loved the book but found the ending vaguely unsatisfying. Think that it is worth mentioning that Wolff is lauded for his short stories (frequently compared to Raymond Carver), and his forays into novels (few) seem to suffer at the end. The short story frequently requires no final conclusion, but provides a keyhole glimpse into a story. Wolff's longer piece endings always seem a stretch for him. If you love the writing here, check out Our Story Begins, a collection of his short stories that spans his career and includes some new previously unpublished works. It cam out this past spring. My book club took it on with rave reviews. Great book choice, Cornflower.

Danielle

I loved this--and for many of the same reasons as others have mentioned it--such clear, crisp writing, yet so eloquent. I don't know that I identitfied with the narrator, I felt a little outside things, but I didn't see this as a shortcoming. I felt I got a glimpse into a private world I would never have seen otherwise. I loved all the writerly and literary references and the desire to achieve that sort of greatness. Does that happen in schools today? I sort of liked how the story wrapped itself around at the end and came back full circle with to the school. The part between the expulsion and the meeting up again with the headmaster was a bit rushed, but I think it would have bogged things down (for me) had it gone into too much detail about his life and family after. I thought the story was more about that amazing and life changing last year at school and what had happened to Dean Makepeace all tied in with the same themes throughout the book--honor and identity and truthfulness. Ayn Rand was pretty awful, wasn't she? I've never read her nor ever plan on doing so. I loved the story that won Big Jeff the opportunity to meet her--that was great--especially as she read so much into it that was not really there or at least intended. And then to ask who's John Galt? Great! All in all I thought this was a wonderful read. Excellent choice!

Mr Cornflower

I didn't know Wolff at all before reading this book. I did enjoy the depiction of various rather closed, introspective groups: not just the school as a whole but what Ramsey calls 'that ponderous Troubador set' ( a rather good piece of sly self-deprecation on the narrator's part). But I shared what other reviewers have said about the somewhat distant tone and the straggling resolution and it was nagging away at me until I read Frances Evangelista's comment about Wolff's real forte being the short story which has a different pace and rhythm. I found that insight very helpful.

Fiberjoy

I kept wondering if this was autobiographical though it's labelled as fiction. It would have been more satisfying to know, though the unknowing fits in with the whole.

Just as "Levine" let his roommate, Bill, know only the superficial about himself, he also keeps us at a safe distance. (Did anyone else feel bothered by not knowing his name?) This becomes an essential part of the book, even in the telling he has a hard time reveling the true him, which I suppose is one reason he so vaguely wraps up the story, not centered on him but on Makepeace.

We are aware of how important graduation and earning a place of respect and esteem at his beloved school is to him. He skillfully leads us towards a climax of graduating only to be ripped away from that story.

The transition from school life to adulthood did seem clumsy with no more "real" information about himself. But as I've had time to think about the story two things became settled in my mind:

1. His plagiarism was not conscious. For weeks he'd been copying Hemingway in order to get into Hemingway's mind - copying had become second nature, a vehicle to writing well. He identified so strongly with Summer Dance that it was his story. On that level he was an innocent. He saw only that this was the way to write truthfully about who he really was. This was the one time where raw feeling and passion give sway to reason.

2. Makepeace is his antithesis - even in the naming.

There's so much more I'd like to dig into (the famous authors) but I've written enough.

sherry

Loved this book! It rang a lot of bells for me... I went to a similar prep school in New England a few years later than when this book is set, and it was a school for girls... but it is all there... the literary magazine, adulation of Frost and Hemingway and most of us read Ayn Rand but skipped the preachy bits. Laughed seeing her impaled on her own awfulness.
The plagiarism was shocking and dismaying, but did occur from time to time.
I found the book unexpectedly powerful and enjoyed it enormously. As to the ending seeming a bit inconclusive, well, that is life.

Barbara MacLeod

Better late than never! (I started to post my comments in a German internet cafe. Unsuccessful ... the reason? The computer 'timed out'; I had lost track of time whilst reading all the interesting comments!)

Anyhow ... I read the book which I got from the library. I finished it but basically didn't engage with it. There was too much 'me' in it. All the way through I was very conscious of the fact that this was a writer writing about writing.

The description of the period was good; I could relate to that.

Re. the Nazi tune: isn't it sad that so often a good tune gets pushed aside because of the way it is 'taken up'. Someone, somewhere once said "An idea cannot be responsible for people who believe in it." Yes, and it's the same with music.

John Self

I think Wolff is terrific, and will go further and say I don't think he has published a bad or even mediocre book. As far as Frances Evangelista's comment goes about his novels being 'few', well, yes - this is his only one! (OK, so he did write one called Ugly Rumors in the 1970s but it has never been reprinted and he now disowns it.)

Like Frances, I recommend Our Story Begins, which I read recently and which has become my book of the year so far. Lean, elegant, funny, horrible, moving - Wolff matches that old reviewer's cliché (but I'm going to use it anyway) of having more in one story than many writers manage in an entire novel.

Incidentally, Wolff says that the writers he provides portraits of in Old School are all writers he admired greatly as a young man - including the terrible Rand!

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