When I was feeling sad for myself last week, coughing and sniffling away with only a box of Kleenex to keep me company, I went in search of an undemanding comfort read, picking up Summer Term by Susan Pleydell. Reprinted a few years ago by Greyladies in Edinburgh, it was certainly undemanding enough to suit my weakened attention span but it wasn’t quite as satisfying as I had hoped, leaving me a little more frustrated than pleased.
As the book begins, Clare Fielding has returned home to Ledenham to assume housekeeping and hostessing duties for her father, the headmaster of a boy’s school, while her mother is away recovering from illness. Having grown up at Ledenham School, Clare is used to the all-male environment; she is on easy terms of friendship with the young masters and is more than capable of handling any young boy who crosses her path. But when her beautiful, glamourous cousin Frances arrives to stay with the Fieldings, the peaceful summer term Clare had imagined vanishes, as masters young and not so young fall over themselves to catch Frances’ attention.
Clare, though as shallow and undeveloped as all the characters here, is likeable. Sensible, affectionate, and very capable (as befits her training as a nurse), everyone likes and respects her. She loves her car, enjoys fishing, and is more at ease in slacks than a silk dress. My greatest disappointment throughout the entire book was discovering that Clare was not to be the romantic heroine. The first half of the book sets her up very nicely to be just that, until the sudden arrival of her long-standing love interest dashed all those hopes. Yes, it is very nice that she found an excellent man to marry but how frustrating that he was so firmly established already and the reader was cheated out of witnessing any romantic developments. And how disruptive that as soon as he arrived, attention suddenly switched to Frances and work began (a little late) on building her up into a likeable character, worthy of being called our heroine.
The campaign to popularize Frances relies on a) having a pompous character fall in love with her and be terrifyingly, sinisterly determined to pursue her despite her politely-stated disinterest in him, and b) reminding us that all the really nice characters – Clare, Mr Fielding, all the jolly, sporting young masters – like her. For me, it was a case of too little too late or perhaps simply too much absurdity too late. The behaviour of the unwanted lover, Henry Courtney, is so hysterical and theatrical. He goes from urbane snob to unbalanced obsessive in unbelievably quick progression. Without this excessive drama, I would have enjoyed the book so much more.
Summer Term is a nice, easy book but perhaps a little too disjointed to be truly satisfying as a comfort read. Still, there are many nice, simple things about that I did like about it: Mr Fielding is a dear; Angus Cameron, a young, new Scottish master who is briefly infatuated with Frances, is very winning; and the solid reliability of Patsy, another of the masters, is appealing to both Frances and me. Thankfully, despite not adoring this, I did move on to read A Young Man’s Fancy, which follows up with the residents of Ledenham School four years after the events of Summer Term (and which I’ll try to review soon), and that book was quite perfect.