[This review was originally posted at my old Bookspot blog.]
I was absolutely delighted to discover Wicked!, in which Jilly Cooper takes on the British school system. Readers of previous Jilly Cooper novels will remember references to Bagley Hall; here, we get to experience the boarding school of the rich and famous for ourselves. For contrast, we also have Larkshire Comprehensive, stuffed with the county's poor and problem children. Disguised as a juicy romance, the book is really a scathing indictment of teachers and administrators who act on petty jealousies and play power games instead of actually teaching. It is also, even more pointedly, a strike against those who would sacrifice real education in favour of modernization, convenience, and the financial bottom line. Light summer reading at its best!
Essentially, the plot follows protagonist Janna Curtis, new head of the struggling Larkshire Comp, as she tries to save her school and its wild and troubled students. She's not perfect, of course — and it's not the carefully crafted "imperfections" of the typical romantic heroine either — she has a not-always-charming temper and shouts at people, she has not one but two affairs with married men, and she gets passing-out drunk on a couple of occasions. But this is classic Jilly Cooper; real-life imperfections are her trademark, and her characters get pimples and go on diets just like real people do. Admittedly, at times I felt a little less than comfortable with this one: fidelity in marriage is a pretty big thing, and while affairs aren't unusual in Jilly Cooper's novels, they are usually either true love rising above bad marriages, or just unpleasant people gratifying themselves. Janna is our heroine, and yet she has a passionate affair with a likeable man whose wife we also like very much.
One of my favourite things about Jilly Cooper's novels is that the recurring characters don't just become static cardboard. Relationships continue to change and develop. In Wicked!, Taggie & Rupert Campbell-Black return, along with their two adopted children, now teenagers attending Bagley Hall. Rupert and Taggie take on challenges so totally unexpected that I was blown away; quite apart from the challenges of parenting teenagers, Taggie takes on a new job and Rupert writes an exam. Jupiter Belvedon's machiavellian nature descends to a new level of, well, Machiavelli-ness, and Cosmo Rannaldini grows from a one-dimensionally mercenary schemer to a troubled wrongdoer who does actually have a redeeming moment toward the end. Really, one has to wonder whether Little Cosmo will find true love in some future novel...
I also really enjoy the side relationships, the ones that aren't a major focus of the novel but are lovingly detailed anyway, such as the growing romance between elderly Lily Hamilton (Aunt Lily from Pandora) and her neighbour. I think that's one thing that really sets Jilly Cooper apart from the chick lit and summer reading crowd: the level of detail and care that is given to the minor characters and relationships. The intertwining families and relationships sprawl and tangle together the way real lives do — so often in novels, the characters are neatly defined as major, minor, and incidental, and one or two plot threads run smoothly side by side, artfully crossing — Wicked! is tangled, exciting, convoluted, and surprising with characters popping up into prominence and then sinking back into the background as the plot rolls on.
I'll admit it, I'm a huge Jilly Cooper fan, and this is possibly my new favourite of all her novels (well, with the exception of Rivals, when Rupert met Taggie...).
The message? Shame on teachers who prioritize their own social and career issues over their students' welfare, and on administrators/bureaucrats who ignore the needs of marginalized students to plump up the financial bottom line. Also, it's never too late to mend past mistakes.
Favourite quote? "'If I still feel like that?' asked Emlyn slowly as, softly as a falling leaf, his hand touched her soaked cheek. 'Oh God, lovely, if only you knew.'"
How I found this book? I bought it at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.
4.5 stars • rare • truly excellent, blew me away, unforgettable