Arabella Hicks is named for the heroine of a Georgette Heyer novel, her mother’s favourite book. She has been working on a novel for the last seven years but so far has never published any of her work, so she proofreads annual reports to make ends meet... and teaches a weekly fiction class.
I enjoyed – and took comfort from – the insight into a writer’s life. I thought I was undisciplined and terribly lax in my daily writing routine until I read this passage, which reassured me that I'm right on track:
“On Thursday morning, Arabella wakes up and goes directly to her computer. This is her regular routine: Sit down at the computer, stare at her bookshelves, look at the computer screen, play three rounds of Spider Solitaire, stare out the window at the Hudson River, open up the document she is working on, read the last chapter she wrote, and change some of the punctuation. Pick one of the books on her bookshelf, look at the ending of it, and try to figure out why that ending works. Look at the framed picture of her mother that she keeps on her desk, and eight-by-ten glossy from an old church directory. Play Spider Solitaire. Delete the changes she just made to the punctuation. Stare bleakly at the last chapter of her novel.”
The story begins with the very first class of a new session, allowing the reader to get to know the students as Arabella does. We also get to participate in her classes along with the students, learning about character, description, point of view, voice, theme, dialogue, and so on. Each chapter about the class ends with a writing assignment. Many favourite books and authors make an appearance, which brings great delight to this old librarian's heart.
I would have read the book for these mini writing tutorials alone, but Susan Breen has crafted a story compelling – though simple – enough to drive the reader forward between each Wednesday night in the classroom. Over the 10 weeks of the course we get to know Arabella’s diverse students, among them: the suave older gentleman who doesn’t do his homework, a hopeful but as yet undiscovered great American novelist, the pretty collegiate with a secret, the letch with a one-track mind, and a struggling housewife.
After each class, Arabella visits her mother in a nursing home and there the plot, it thickens. Mothers and daughters seldom have straightforward relationships, and these two are no exception. Their family history is complex, with circumstances very different from my own experience, which gave me a lot to think about.
Though the story itself is simple, its pace and authenticity made for a brisk read. I borrowed this book from the wonderful Sohoe Public Library, but I hope to find my own copy because I know I’ll want to reread it often. I’m looking forward to more stories like this from Susan Breen.
~ The Fiction Class by Susan Breen. New York: Plume, 2008
PS - if you haven't given Georgette Heyer a try, do yourself a favour and track down one of her books right away. 'Arabella' is a good one to begin with. Though Heyer wrote (mostly) romances, she was from an era before romances were all about heaving bosoms and olympic bed-play. Her novels take place in Edwardian and Georgian England, and because they are full of well-researched period detail they're like history class, only fun. She had a great talent for sparkling dialogue and wonderful humour. What could possibly be better than that?