European author Joanne Harris came out of the gate with CHOCOLAT in 1999–and the debut novel became a hit movie in 2000, starring Johnny Depp. Not too shabby. It allowed Harris to quit her teaching job. She went on to publish a number of other notable titles.
In 2005, the author gave us GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS, a cat-and-mouse story in which Harris returns to the classroom, albeit the fictional one of a boy’s prep school in Northern England known as St. Oswald’s. (I loved this book so much, I taught it to an honors sophomore English class a couple of years later.)
So when I went to the new release shelf at the public library last week, and found Harris had just released a sequel to GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS, I picked up DIFFERENT CLASS with high hopes.
Because of the decade-long time-lapse between the publication of G&P and its sequel, and the absolute complexity of the story lines of both novels, I am reviewing them both this month. And while DIFFERENT CLASS can stand alone, I highly recommend reading GENTLEMEN and PLAYERS first if you are so inclined.
(No spoilers ahead. Book titles are linked to Amazon)
Gentlemen and Players Harper Perennial, 2007. 422 pgs.
Roy Straightly,the old classics teacher with one-hundred terms under his belt, narrates this complex tale that spans fifteen years at St. Oswald’s prep school for boys.
He shares the narrative duties with a vague, unreliable narrator known as “Young Snyde” who the reader learns is the son of the school’s caretaker, the lowbrow drunk John Snyde.
Living in the caretaker’s modest abode on the edge of campus, Young Snyde attends public school and lives in a world far different from those at St. Oswald’s.
He is at once envious and mesmerized by the gilded existence of the privileged who attend the school–especially by a boy named Leon Mitchell, and so Young Snyde finds a way to infiltrate the institution as new student, Julian Pinchbeck.
As venerable old institutions go, little changes at St. Oswald’s. Until this year. There’s new staff. New students. And trouble is brewing. First, minor things are troubling Mr. Straightly, but then the incidents become more disturbing, and the old man must rise to thwarting the forces that threaten the very existence of the old school, or die trying.
This novel is broken into sections named for chess pieces. And since the plot is rather like a chess game between the master and the pupil, it is a brilliant structural concept, but a challenging one, what with adding two different time settings (2004 and 1989) to the two narrative threads.
Add to the jumping here, there and everywhere, the place setting is one that requires quite a population, and well, the reader is easily confused simply by the number of teachers and students coming and going across the years.
Also, the reader must suspend disbelief from time to time as some rather far-fetched plot developments unfold. But it’s a story. And for dealing with the occasionally jarring detail, the reader is rewarded with a mystery that continues to surprise.
This a fun but challenging read with twists that will keep you guessing until the last page. I loved, loved, loved Roy Straightly. He embodies the best of the best in teachers–a selfless role model who loves his profession, his students, and his school as much as life itself.
Different Class Touchstone Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc.) 2017. 403 pgs.
Beloved Latin Master, Roy Straightly is back at St. Oswald’s Prep School for Boys. Well, he
never really left. It just took author Joanne Harris a good decade to bring him back to us in all his delightful, grouchy but loveable glory.
Roy is the type of teacher known as a “Tweed Jacket.” He has perpetual food and tea stains on his clothes. Chalk dust is all over him. He’s addicted to licorice candies, loves an occasional French cigarette, and is known to imbibe from time to time.
A confirmed bachelor, Straightly has dedicated his life to serving the youth of St. Oswald’s and he plans to continue teaching likely until they carry him out of there in a horizontal box. Work keeps the mind busy, and poor Mr. Straightly saw his mother suffer with dementia long enough to know it’s a fate he’d rather avoid.
But the best thing about this Tweed Jacket is how much he cares about teaching his boys. They mean the world to him. As does St.Oswald’s. After all, he once attended the old school as a boy himself.He loves everything it stands for–and especially its traditions.
But over the course of a long career, any teacher can tell you there will be one or two students who rattle even the most self-assured of masters. And in DIFFERENT CLASS, Roy Straightly lives long enough to see such a student return to his life after a twenty-four year hiatus–and this time it’s as Roy Straightly’s new boss, Johnny Harrington.
With Harrington comes lots of change. Modernization. Technology. And a push to put the old out to pasture–especially where the faculty is concerned.
But there’s more going on at St. Oswald’s than revitalization. Evil is afoot. And it’s in the form of the new headmaster, his sidekicks from back in the day, a couple of suited goons, and even a religious organization with a mission to reform homosexuals.
So where Harrington and his old friends are concerned, there’s blood in the water and it’s feeding time at St. Oswald’s.
Like GENTLEMEN and PLAYERS, the sequel A DIFFERENT CLASS has two narrators–Roy Straightly and an unreliable, mysterious letter writer who, over the course of the novel, evolves from disturbed boy to full-grown psychopath.
The novel spans the years between 1981 and 2005. Also, a wide swath of time for the reader to keep straight–and it pings and pongs between the two as it pings and pongs between narrators.
This novel likewise features an extensive cast of characters.
Some have nicknames in addition to their given names, and can also be difficult to keep straight since they usually revolve around animals. Mousey, Ratboy, Piggy, Poodle…you get the idea.
Half the time over the course of the first 250 pages, I wasn’t sure who was who among the secondary characters. Or even who Mousey was–the recipient of the unreliable mystery narrator’s letters.
And then there’s the faculty. Again, many, many characters. Some from G&P, and some new.
I felt like I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of all the characters, but really, who wants to work that hard at reading for pleasure?
Still, by sticking with it, the reader is rewarded in the end with a satisfying conclusion. Although not everyone gets their comeuppance.
Another small issue is that each of the eight sections begin with a Latin quote. It would be nice to know what these mean.
I suppose a reader could take the time to look them up, but it takes away from the narrative pace and the sense of urgency in the reader to turn the page. In the text itself, when Straightly uses Latin phrases, the author usually puts the meaning in context clues, but not always.
What Harris really nails is her understanding of school politics. After teaching for twenty-eight years myself, I can verify extremely similar trends and political plays at work here in U.S. public schools as detailed herein at this private English school.
Harris also has crafted a compelling character in Roy Straightly. The old Tweed Jacket is why I kept at this book from start to finish. I needed to know if he would be alright.
And that’s a pretty neat trick that Joanne Harris manages pull off. For all the confusion, blind corners, time tripping, and sleight of hand, I care about Roy Straightly like he is an old friend of mine. And in a sense, he is.
I highly recommend these titles to anyone who loves compelling mysteries that bait and then blind side.
Teachers and school staff will especially enjoy these books. You will recognize the foibles of colleagues, the follies of students, and the two-faces of the power-hungry suits.
Thanks for reading. And remember, Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur*
S.J. Anderson, Foxy Writer Chick
*Anything said in Latin sounds profound.