Reviews of Rules at the School by the Sea and Lessons at the School by the Sea by Jenny Colgan

Almost a ten year gap between these two novels but the characters only aged a year! 😎 Now, that’s book power!

These are going to be quickie reviews. Maybe. You know me.

Blurb: For the second year at Downey House, it’s getting harder and harder to stick to the rules . . .

Maggie Adair’s first year as a teacher at Downey House was a surprising success. After making the leap from an inner-city school in Glasgow, she’s learned to appreciate the mellower pace of the girls’ boarding school by the sea.

Now engaged to her longtime boyfriend, sweet and steady Stan, Maggie’s just got to stop thinking about David McDonald, her colleague at the boys’ school down the road. Well, hasn’t she? Can Maggie take a leaf out of the Well Behaved Teacher’s exercise book and stick to her plan for a small but elegant wedding and settled life of matrimony?

Even as Maggie tries to stay within the lines, rules are being broken all around her. Maggie’s boss, headmistress Veronica Deveral, has more to lose than anyone. When Daniel Stapleton joins the faculty, Veronica finds herself forced to confront a scandalous secret she thought she’d carefully buried forever. How long will she be able to keep her past under wraps?

What does a new year of classes, rules, and camaraderie hold for the students and faculty at Downey House?

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Blurb: School is out, following a bit of saucy scandal at Downey House…

Beloved high school teacher Maggie Adair had been comfortably, if somewhat ambivalently, engaged to her dependable long-distance boyfriend Stan. But in the heat of summer, Maggie’s attraction to her colleague David McDonald has caught fire. Now both are facing an uncertain future as they try to figure out how to stay committed to their careers—and each other.

Meanwhile, the girls of Downey House—mercurial Fliss, glamorous Alice, and shy, hard-working Simone—have had long summers at home, which weren’t quite the respite they had been hoping for. But the new school year is thankfully here, and it will bring new pupils and lots of fresh challenges for students and teachers alike at the school by the sea.

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I will start these reviews by saying that I have been a Jenny Colgan fan for a long time and usually welcome her books as a bit of escape and always good for a laugh. Perhaps it’s because of the subject matter–a girls boarding school–that the novels seem to be more filled with angst as well as general meanness than laughter.

Rules at the School by the Sea brought back the characters from the first book in the series (see my review here), Maggie, David, Felicity, Simone, Alice, and Veronica as well added an additional character in the form of American girl, Zelda, whose father is in the military. She comes from Washington, DC, a town I know well.

Zelda’s first mission, of course, as we’re given to understand because she is American, is to give Simone a makeover because Simone is pudgy. Weight becomes one of the themes of the book with a diet of fruit being the main takeaway. While the pudgy character loses weight and is glorified, a thin character loses weight, and it’s said she has an eating disorder. Never once is it acknowledged that perhaps good nutrition is a better goal and that eating disorders affect individuals of all sizes. Colgan has always had a fat phobia that I’ve tended not to point out but here, where it’s magnified, it’s pretty hard to overlook.

As for the romance between Maggie and David, it’s almost non-existent except in the heads of the two characters. But oh-the-angst.

As far as characterization, let me start with Zelda and say that in this case Colgan never met a stereotype of an American she didn’t like to apply to Zelda right down to threats of litigation. Funnily enough, she keeps having Zelda say she’s cold but I can assure you that the average low winter temperatures in Washington DC are colder than Cornwall by about 20F. But all of the characters are cardboard.

The only hopeful storyline in Rules at the School by the Sea for me was Veronica’s description of the romance she had that brought about her son Daniel. Veronica describes an interaction with a Russian sailor at the docks and I wondered how Sheffield, which is in the middle of England, could have docks that a Russian sailor in the 1970s could visit.

Compared to Welcome to the School by the Sea, Rules at the School by the Sea feels thin, angsty, and not well-thought-out.

Well, that wasn’t of the promised shortness, was it?

I have to say that I was hopeful for Lessons at the School by the Sea but the introduction of Ismé as another prickly character to replace the former prickly Zelda doused those hopes. I sincerely wish that in one of the future three novels that Colgan would introduce a well-grounded, funny girl who is bright and optimistic. Too much to ask?

Because Colgan wants to maintain cardboard current, Ismé, is a non-binary feminist who’s favorite word is “woke.” She is gorgeous, talented, and Black and raises the ire of someone who makes offensive remarks about her online.

Meanwhile, David lost his position at the boy’s school while Maggie has been put on probation of sorts and is told that she cannot see, call, or engage in social media with David. (Really? Is this a school or a dictatorship? Sounds a little too far-reaching to me.) Maggie has broken off her engagement to Stan and is now a lonely spinster teacher filled with angst.

David, however, is teaching at a comprehensive school, what we in the States would call a public school, and is facing situations unlike any he’s dealt with previously. He draws on past conversations with Maggie as a guide because she taught at such a school in Scotland.

While Lessons at the School by the Sea is better than Rules at the School by the Sea, it is not quite as good as Welcome to the School by the Sea. I would suggest that this is because, while Maggie and Veronica’s stories are growing, the stories of the girls seem stagnant. We should be discovering the dreams and the goals of Simone, Fliss, and Alice because these years are their big time. And by that I mean, their growth period as they move to becoming young adults and finding their passions, sometimes, beyond boys. (Hopefully it’s not their big time the same way that some say high school was the best time of their lives!) It doesn’t feel as if Colgan has given these girls dreams. What teenager doesn’t have them?

There are supposed to be three more books in the series and I sincerely hope that the characters enjoy growth and happiness with a cap on angst.

I received an ARC of Lessons at the School by the Sea in exchange for an honest review.

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