Itís amazing how just one book can renew your interest in all kinds of reading. I started Educating Waverly and made it nearly twenty pages before flinging it down in disgust. In shuffling it to the bottom of my in-progress stack, I rediscovered a handful of other books that needed my attention. After I finished those, I read ten more pages of Waverly and ran for the bookstore. I bought some new books, finished off some others Iíd been meaning to get to, and was down to the airport-novel Grisham knockoffs before finally deciding that I should just finish the damn thing already. And, a mere couple of weeks later, I did.
At the very beginning of WWII, Waverly Scott Ė the shy, homely illegitimate daughter of a business magnate and his long-time secretary/mistress, whose inconvenient resemblance to her father provides fodder for gossip wherever they go Ė gets packed off to Temple School, a girls-only private school located on a tiny Puget Sound island. Here, the students wear togas, keep their hair as short as boysí, and eat a bizarre diet consisting only of True Foods (as determined by a faculty memberís extensive experimentation). Interpretive-dance classes alternate with nature walks on the beach, and textbooks simply donít exist. The school, having seen better days, now boasts only five students, all daughters of rich and uninterested parents; together, the lonely girls cobble together a family of sorts, based on their secret desires for chocolate and the cute local boy. Everything changes, though, when the war worsens, and a French-Jewish refugee, Avril, is sent to their school. Avril is sullen, secretive, and intractable, and disliked by everyone; but when Waverly reaches out to her, they embark on a passionate and intimate friendship that will mark them both for life.
The plot, though not bad, is badly mishandled. The story opens in the present day, with a young island girl temping for a cranky romance novelist named Nona York, who somehow knows all about the girlís family. Mysterious hints are dropped, souvenirs of the past discovered, and the story promptly flashes back sixty years, launching into a plot-stopping, tiresomely rapturous description of life at Temple School, and remaining there for the vast majority of the book. The pacing is jerky and unsatisfying, spending far too much time establishing setting and belatedly filling in the backstory long after the reader has inferred it on his or her own. Only at the very end, when the present-day introduction has been completely forgotten, do we return to the first set of characters, just in time for a gratuitously melodramatic final scene.
The characters are a mixed bag. Sophia Westervelt, the wealthy and eccentric school headmistress, ends up being a fleshed-out character, but we donít learn anything about her life until the final third of the book, well after the Temple School portion of the plot is finished. By contrast, Waverly and Avril seem hastily conceived; they are not given any unique traits, nor is any reason provided for their intense and exclusive attraction to one another. We are told that they are inseparable and devoted friends, but thereís no context for Avrilís transformation from sullen minx to carefree Temple girl, and it fails to convince. Trying too hard to conjure up a jolly mix of quirky free-thinking characters all nursing secret tragedies, the author spreads her imagination too thin on the ground, to the detriment of the entire book.
A tedious, slow-moving story that brings too little satisfaction for the work involved, Educating Waverlyís best use may be to remind you of all the other, better books that deserve your attention first.