Archive for the ‘Joshua Gaylord’ Category

Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord is yet another novel set at an all-girls school, examining the relationships between students and teachers.  Reading this so soon after The Rehearsal certainly did Hummingbirds no favours but I think I would have been disappointed regardless.  Though there were some good passages and a few flashes of wit and wisdom, the story was slight with little to sustain even a determined reader like myself.

The hummingbirds of the titles are the teenage girls who attend the Carmine-Casey School for Girls in New York, where for several years Leo Binhammer has enjoyed his role as the sole male in the English department, appreciating his novelty appeal and the adoration he receives from his students.  However, as the novel begins the English department is welcoming a new teacher, Ted Hughes (yes, that’s really his name).  Binhammer is threatened by his new rival but is drawn to him nonetheless, befriending Hughes, all the while holding on to a secret that involves them both.

The secret is, frankly, ridiculous.  The tension it is supposed to create when revealed feels manufactured, a clumsy plot device.  The novel is relatively graceless to begin with but this was a particularly awkward set up, a sort of false climax that I couldn’t bring myself to care about.  However, it does act as a separation point in the narrative: everything leading up to this confrontation feels like one, cohesive book, while the bit that follows (a relatively short section) feels completely separate.  The characters are familiar but the focus shifts to an incident so clichéd and predictable that you feel certain that the author felt it had to be tacked on merely because it was expected and that the end was as good a place as any to put it.

The parallelism between the teachers and the students was the only elegant part of this book: the rivalry between Binhammer and Hughes is echoed in that between the academically-inclined Liz Warren and the provocative Dixie Doyle.  Dixie was a disappointing character – far too flat and vapid, a particular feat considering how many passages are narrated from her perspective.  Hughes received a similar treatment, coming across as bland and unobjectionable for the most part, getting some wonderful lines but nothing that revealed his motivations or thoughts.  Binhammer, a bundle of insecurities and neuroses, was frustrating but you could (to a certain extent) understand where he was coming from.  The same could be said for Liz Warren – not that she is insecure, but that she is relatable.  Liz is a serious girl, an over-achiever, rather indifferent to the social norms of teenagers.  She doesn’t have that rage or false sense of indignation that many authors imbue such characters with, making them into dull stereotypes.  She does well at school, she is involved in extracurricular activities, she has friends, but she remains one of those teenagers who don’t seem like a teenagers – a middle-aged person masquerading in a young body.  The kind of student that teachers are both impressed by and wary of, unable to classify as either a student or a peer.

Clearly, Liz was my favourite character.  How to resist someone who, after being called ‘precocious’ by adult women in a situation where they view her as their rival, mentally remarks “precocious is what they call smart people before they are old enough to be taken seriously” (p. 287). 

Again, as with The Rehearsal, there were interesting thoughts on the power dynamics of school relationships: teachers and students, men and women.  Again, for the most part, the female students came out with the dominant role.  At several points, various teachers remark about how the girls treat their favourite teachers: “The girls,” one character remarks, “are fiercely loyal to men” (p. 237).  They are, of course, but the men, especially Binhammer, need this loyalty, need this love, to feel worthy and powerful.  When the girls threaten to switch their allegiances to Hughes, Binhammer feels impotent.  It is the girls who determine the power hierarchies at the school, at all levels.  They sense insecurity, weakness, in the men and so grant them attention and power, at least until someone more desperate, male or female, comes along.  Ah, the capriciousness and unthinking responsibility of youth.

Can anyone recommend more successfully-executed novels that deal with this same theme (relationships between students and teachers)?  Aside from Jean Brodie?

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