Helen Porter is a writer about whom I can’t even pretend to be unbiased, since I count her as one of my literary and life mentors. I couldn’t say anything bad about her: if I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed her book, I just wouldn’t have reviewed it. But I did enjoy it, so here I am telling you about it so you’ll all go out and read it.
A lot of work and loving care went into this novel — Helen has been working it for almost as long as I’ve known her. It’s a sequel to her young-adult novel January, February, June or July, published in the 1980s to some acclaim — but far less than it deserved. Finishing School is a novel for adults that focuses on Eileen Novak, the mother of Heather Novak who was the main character in January, February. Forty-nine and divorced, but not past looking for love, Eileen is a hairdresser who has started going to night school to get her high school diploma. Finishing School is written in the form of Eileen’s journal entries for her English class.
Writing a novel in the form of diary or journal entries, or indeed letters, is always a tricky conceit to pull off, because very few people (especially those, like Eileen, who aren’t already experienced writers) write diaries and journals in the kind of detail you need for a novel. Thus, the long and vividly drawn passages, filled with dialogue, that pass for journal entries in such novels often strain credibility because so few people’s journals are really like that (trust me, I’m an English teacher … I’ve read a lot of journals).
The chapters in Finishing School probably are more reflective, detailed and lengthy than Eileen’s real journal entries would be, but they are relatively short and her voice comes through so flawlessly that the conceit holds up: you really do feel you are reading over Eileen’s shoulder as she writes. The voice, dialect and attitude of a middle-aged working-class St. John’s woman, has never been captured better. Eileen is a wonderfully vivid and individual character, yet she offers the reader a window into the experience of women of her age, class and background.
Eileen is strong-willed, opinionated, and often funny. She is puzzled by her university-educated daughter’s diatribes on feminism, the environment, and other political issues, yet as she reflects on the inequities of the world she lives in (another daughter is living in a shelter for battered women) she often concludes that these newfangled ideas make more sense than she would have ever given them credit for. She is thoughtful and perceptive without ever breaking character; we never get the sense we are listening to the author using Eileen as a mouthpiece.
One of the joys of this novel is that it’s such a St. John’s story. Nobody catches the nuances of St. John’s society like Helen Porter does — the sense of place, the language, the sounds and smells, the unspoken but clearly understood class distinctions. One thing I like here is that she explores a largely untouched aspect of St. John’s life — the lives of working-class Protestant Newfoundlanders. So many writers have written well about the Irish Catholic experience in Newfoundland that it has come to seem “the norm,” yet there are so many other subcultures within Newfoundland. Eileen’s background — baptized in the United Church, but rarely attending it except to go to CGIT as a teenager — is letter-perfect, including her mother who started going to the Salvation Army in later life and gave up her regular game of 120s for games of Rook instead (played with exactly the same rules, but with non-satanic cards, approved for those who “don’t believe in cards.” SDAs are big on Rook too, so that gave me a laugh).
This is a novel that focuses on character and on place, rather than on plot. Very little actually happens in this novel; it’s episodic at best. But the kind of reader who will enjoy Finishing School probably isn’t looking for a plot-driven action story. Sitting down with Finishing School is like sitting down with Eileen over a cup of tea and hearing about her day. You go away feeling you’ve made a new friend, and you wish her well in whatever happens after the book’s pages close behind her.
Finishing School is in bookstores all over town, but if you’re not in St. John’s and are having trouble finding a copy in the store or online, try the publisher’s website.