It’s the beginning of the 1967 school year, and closeted Arthur McDougal has been kicked out of Manhattan’s prestigious Collegiate School. He is shipped off to Spooner in Connecticut, a somewhat shabby prep school run by Christian Scientists known for its liberal admissions policies for troubled kids.
There Arthur meets Katrina Felt, the daughter of a famous Hollywood diva and an Oscar-winning musical director. Though Arthur is the narrator, he and the other characters orbit Katrina. She is vivacious, charismatic, and talented. She has the ability to charm, if not fascinate, everyone she meets. Her life would seemingly be the envy of everyone if not for her dependence on drugs and alcohol, a problem Arthur earnestly attempts to fix. While the troubled-child-of-the-stars theme is a bit predictable, the author infuses enough life into the details to keep it from being cliché. There are also other intriguing plot threads including a struggle for control of the school, a handsome jock who just might be bi-curious enough to do more than flirt, and a secret Arthur’s upper-crust parents have been unwilling to divulge.
Stuart relies heavily on arch, slick dialog and enough Connecticut Lockjaw voice that you half expect someone to say “Lovey, let’s have Gilligan fan us some more with those palm fronds.” At first, it seemed overdone, but as the characters differentiate themselves and the plot broadens, the effect is pleasantly atmospheric. Arthur’s descriptions are often beautiful or humorously original. (“She wore a hat the size of a pizza.”)
Like so many teen male protagonists, Arthur McDougal has been compared to Holden Caulfield. That’s not quite warranted as Arthur doesn’t have the same level of sharp observations that cut through society’s tendency towards fraudulence. He’s also noticeably more passive than Holden, letting Katrina lead their adventures. On the other hand, Arthur is a very likeable and dynamic character bravely going through the coming out process, having his first sexual experiences, and taking steps to direct his uncertain future while Katrina, the other Spooner students, and the Spooner School itself may have trouble doing the same. This is an engaging, atmospheric book that will appeal to readers that enjoyed Felice Picano’s ability to capture a bygone era. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Gavin Atlas