Lessons at the School by the Sea
Grade : B-

I have to grade Lessons at the School by the Sea on a curve, because it’s the third novel in a series, and I haven’t read the first two books. And while Jenny Colgan is a great writer and does manage to get across the different personalities of the students and adult characters, I felt like I was missing something.

It’s the end of term at the posh Downey House boarding school, so teacher Maggie Adair is heading back to Glasgow and her fiancé, Stan. But when David McDonald, a fellow teacher whom Maggie has developed a crush on, jumps the turnstile at the train station in a seeming attempt to reach her, she pulls the cord that stops the train, and determines she can’t go through with marrying a man she does not love. When she returns to Downey for the autumn term, she’s told in no uncertain terms that any feelings she has for David must be squashed, because a romantic relationship between two teachers is simply too scandalous for the school to endure. Not that David has made any effort to contact her or declare his feelings.

David is canned for his spontaneous display of feelings for Maggie and made to leave his job at Downey Boys school, despite being an excellent teacher and favorite of the students. When Maggie fails to reach out to him, he assumes she went forward with her engagement and married Stan. Broken-hearted, he takes a job at the rough Phillip Dean Comprehensive School, which couldn’t be more different to Downey. The students are rude and disrespectful and, as he comes to learn, severely under-educated. But his determination and engaging methods start to make a difference even as he encounters a few headaches.

Students Fliss, Simone, Alice and Ismé have returned to Downey House as third years, each with an agenda. As the new girl at Downey, not to mention being a “scholarship” student and a lesbian, Ismé pushes the other girls away. She becomes the victim of vicious gossip. Fliss, who is always looking for ways to move out from behind entitled rich-girl Alice’s shadow, discovers that she has feelings for Ismé and might be, in fact bisexual. And Simone struggles to overcome her low self-esteem and discomfort with a body that has matured into something quite voluptuous.

All of the characters in this story – and there are many – are very intriguing; however, we never really delve too deeply into any one story. This is where I suspect having skipped the first two books in the series is a detriment. Perhaps my favorite storyline followed David’s integration into a hard-knock school and his efforts to make a difference.

As the main love interests, Maggie and David spend nearly the entire book apart. Even more troubling, both fail to make efforts to contact the other until midway through the story, and this leads to the mutual belief that neither one has feelings for the other. It’s a Big Misunderstanding on steroids. Throw in the absurdity of two teachers at a boarding school being strictly forbidden to have a romantic relationship and the romance aspect of the book became more frustrating than compelling.

One interesting thing about this book is that it’s written in some form of head-hopping/omniscient narration. At any given moment, we are shown the thoughts and feelings of any given character. It’s not consistent enough to feel intentional (omniscient), but rather as if writer Colgan just moved in and out of different points of view in order to tell a better story. I thought this might bother me as I’m not a fan of head-hopping at all, but it actually worked.

I do think I would have enjoyed this more had I read the first two books in the series. So if you’d done so, I do recommend Lessons at the School by the Sea as more of well-drawn characters and what I’m guessing might be a sweet love story. If you haven’t read the first two books, I say hold off on this one until you do so because it is a good book and would be even better with the history behind it.

Editor’s Note:  Jenny Colgan wrote two books in 2008 and 2010 under a pseudonym – Jane Beaton – featuring Maggie Adair and the Downey School; those books – Class and Rules – have now been republished under Colgan’s name and make books one and two of the School by the Sea series.  

Reviewed by Jenna Harper

Grade: B-

Sensuality: Kisses

Review Date : August 26, 2023

Publication Date: 03/2023

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Jenna Harper

I'm a city-fied suburban hockey mom who owns more books than I will probably ever manage to read in my lifetime, but I'm determined to try.
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