The 40 members of the Class of 1997 at the highly respected Siddons School for Girls (K-12) on New York City's Upper East Side see only one predictable year ahead before their lives break out into the real world of college and young adulthood. Whether the prospect inspires anticipation or dread, they still have some growing to do. Named after the local parish, Christine Schutt's new novel All Souls compresses into relatively few pages the formative, sometimes indefinable learning that can happen in all young lives, even the most protected.
Foremost among the seniors, beautiful Astra Dell, with her dead mother's "gift for hope and serenity," is suddenly stricken by cancer. Her illness affects the whole class, kicking the growth process into high gear among her friends and their families.
Schutt resists the temptation to Dickens-ize this world; it is thoughtless and sometimes endearingly stuck in adolescence (even the parents) but the teachers do their best, and so do most of the students, given their predilections. She introduces a wealth of characters from the start, but Astra's friends - Carlotta, anorexic child of self-besotted parents; "dirty Marlene," ironic and proud of it; and Lisa, defiant and so deliberately looking for new experiences that she enjoys none of them - are the main players in the game. Others include the insecure lesbian, Miss Wilkes, the sadly unattractive Miss Mazur and her oblivious fellow teacher, Tim Weeks, beloved by all the eighth graders.
Schutt, who teaches at an exclusive New York City school and whose last novel, Florida, became a National Book Award finalist, employs a bracing creative style here, depending more on implications and quick leaps of association than actual explication. But even with a mode so condensed that you sometimes want to soak it in a brew of words to plump it up a bit, this novel succeeds. In fact, that very economy of detail enlists readers to add their own insights to the concoction. They will not go far wrong, for we all know folks like these - and have been folks like these.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.