School for Love, originally published in 1951, is a slight and bittersweet novel about a young English teenager, Felix Latimer, orphaned and marooned in Jerusalem in 1945. He finds a place to live with Miss Bohun, an eccentric distant relative and leader of a small religious cult. Felix befriends his fellow lodger the lonely Mr. Jewel and tries to eke out a life while he waits for a chance to return to England. Miss Bohun, narcissistic and full of self-pity, rules the roost through sheer force of will; when Mrs. Ellis, a pregnant widow, arrives, the house is thrown into disarray.
When I say that School for Love is slight, I don't mean that it is light fiction or insubstantial in any way; only that it is a quiet novel whose emotional impact builds slowly and almost imperceptibly. When Miss Bohun meets Mrs. Ellis, the reader gets a characteristic glimpse at Miss Bohun's insensitivity:
"What have you chanced upon?" Miss Bohun asked excitedly. "What are they? Oh! Irises! Such interesting flowers." She stared blindly at them for a moment, then swinging quickly round she all but trampled them under her feet. "I've all sorts of rare irises in the garden," she said. "A young botanist planted them here...He was going to Cairo...and he didn't know what to do with all these valuable bulbs - so I offered him a home for them."How kind of her, no? Schnorring some expensive flowers (which she carelessly destroys) is the least of her sins, and Felix's awareness of her awfulness dawns very gradually, from the slow unfolding of the backstory of Frau Leszno, who we meet as Miss Bohun's servant but whose actual position in the household is very different, to Miss Bohun's cruelty towards Mrs. Ellis and finally to a stunning betrayal of Mr. Jewel and Felix himself. Felix's growing awareness of her nature and ability to set boundaries and stand up for himself marks the arc he must travel towards maturity.
A literary coming of age novel for adults, School for Love is a treasure I'm glad to have come upon. The language is clean and unpretentious and the setting, Jerusalem of 1945, is fascinating and colorful. Much of the action takes place within the confines of Miss Bohun's house but the reader will get a glimpse of a scarred, transient population living on the fringes in a cosmopolitan city both young and ancient, where everybody's life feels unsettled and temporary- as though life is something that happens elsewhere, and here is just a waystation. In her introduction, author Jane Smiley characterizes the novel as "idiosyncratic and neatly controlled...with sharp, uncomfortable characters." Manning has crafted something quite lovely nonetheless.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.