The New York Times
All Soulsby Christine Schutt
In 1997, at the distinguished Siddons School on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the school year opens with distressing news: Astra Dell is suffering from a rare disease. Astra's friends try to reconcile the sick girl's suffering with their own fierce longings and impetuous attachments. Car writes unsparing letters, which the dirty Marlene, in her devotion, then steals
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In 1997, at the distinguished Siddons School on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the school year opens with distressing news: Astra Dell is suffering from a rare disease. Astra's friends try to reconcile the sick girl's suffering with their own fierce longings and impetuous attachments. Car writes unsparing letters, which the dirty Marlene, in her devotion, then steals. Other classmates carry on: The silly team of Suki and Alex pursue Will Bliss while the subversive Lisa Van de Ven makes dates with Miss Wilkes. The world of private schools and privilege in New York City is funny, poignant, cruel, and at its heart is a sick girl, Astra Dell, "that pale girl from the senior class, the dancer with all the hair, the red hair, knotted or braided or let to fall to her waist, a fever and she consumed."
National Book Award Finalist Christine Schutt has created a wickedly original tale of innocence, daring and illness.
The New York Times
The brutal, materialistic and dysfunctional underbelly of prep schools and the females who live in it create the foundation for Schutt's beautifully written but light-on-substance novel (following 2004's National Book Award finalist Florida). In the midst of 1997 Manhattan, all-girl prep school Siddons churns out ladies with a wide spectrum of academic skills, mental problems and severe insecurities, all of whom have been touched in some way by the novel's saintly lynchpin, Astra Dell, who leaves her studies behind to fight her rare cancer. Schutt introduces a large cast of characters who are dealing with Astra's absence and their own personal problems: Astra's best friend, anorexic Car; "dirty girl" Marlene; the inseparable and insensitive Alex and Suki; lesbian outcast Lisa; and their beloved instructors, the awkward Anna Mazur and Tim Weeks, the handsome colleague Anna's in love with. Unfortunately, Schutt shoehorns too many characters into a relatively thin book, and though there isn't a boring sentence in here, Schutt doesn't do enough with the familiar prep school setting to make the story resonate. (Apr.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In this latest novel by Schutt (Florida,), the angst of very rich girls undergoing the stress of senior year in a Manhattan prep school is leavened by their reactions to a classmate who is ill in the hospital with a rare form of cancer. Astra Dell, who lost her own mother a few years ago in a violent accident, haunts her classmates: she becomes a rationalization for their bulimia and a reason to blame themselves for caring so deeply about their college applications. Her best friends rarely visit, or they resort to sending her thoughtless letters, but Marlene, a scholarship student, finds herself more comfortable on the neutral ground of the hospital room than in school. She regularly brings Astra her homework and becomes her most devoted visitor. Schutt's spare and artful prose strikes a balance between poignancy and cynicism in illustrating the interconnections of classmates, parents, and teachers. Some chapters are mere brief impressions, but these snippets cohere into a picture of the school's community and its sharp divisions of class and wealth. Recommended for popular fiction collections.
Set in a girls' school on Manhattan's Upper East Side, this book is a wonderfully written, touching story. Popular Astra Dell spends much of her senior year in the hospital with a rare form of tissue cancer. A young teacher visits Astra and considers her own brother who died young, while doubting her role as teacher and her potential relationship with a colleague who loves being unattached almost as much as he enjoys the students' crushes on him. Astra's friend Car is too busy with a multitude of issues to visit, but sends angst-filled letters that are sometimes stolen by Marlene, the unpopular girl who visits every day and considers Astra her new best friend. Astra's widowed father finds it hard to speak with his own daughter. Like E. R. Frank's Life Is Funny (Puffin, 2002), All Souls is written from the perspectives of several characters. Schutt, who herself teaches at a New York girls' school, mines those hallways for an extraordinarily captivating take on the teachers', parents', and teens' troubled worlds. At times she evokes Virginia Woolf's style in the immediacy of her characters' thoughts. All Souls may at first remind teens of formulaic novels such as Cecily von Ziegesar's "Gossip Girl" series (Little, Brown), but they will quickly discover a style and depth to the writing that is refreshing for this genre.-Jennifer Waters, Red Deer Public Library, Alberta, Canada
PRAISE FOR FLORIDA
"Haunting and original, Florida is a beautiful book."—Claire Messud, author of The Emperor's Children
"In Florida, Christine Schutt conveys, through an odd, beautiful, and original language, real truths about childhood and longing. She is a truly gifted writer."—George Saunders, author of Pastoralia
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Read an Excerpt
The Girl No One Knows
Mr. Dell, in his daughter’s room, stuck his face into the horn of a stargazer lily, one of a . . . one of a . . . must have been a dozen, and he breathed in and said wasn’t that something. And wasn’t it: the pileup of cards, a stuffed bear, a bouquet of balloons, a banner, a bed jacket, books on tape.
We love you, Astra! The chorus to his daughter was always the same, and he, too, said the same, but he did not look at her famished face, did not meet her eye, did not take her hand; he wheezed out only so much cheer. “That party at the Mortons’” was how he started. Mr. Dell stood between his daughter’s bed and the window and described what he could of the Mortons’ party. “I’ve been to Suki’s before, Dad.” Okay, he had forgotten, so other things, then. Not far into the kickoff fund-raiser, the host had stood on a piano bench to say he was not sorry to be so poorly acquainted with the parents gathered, but he expected to know a lot about everyone by the end of the school year when the money for the senior gift was raised. “Then Mr. Morton expected he would never see any of us again.”
“That sounds like Suki’s dad.”
“Suki’s mother is funny.”
The room Suki’s father had spoken in was a very big, cream-colored box of a room, a cake box, a hatbox, something large and expensive. Mr. Dell described the party to his daughter in the way Grace would have described it: how things looked and sounded, the gurgle of civility among designing adults. He described what it felt like to be known as the parent of such a child, his own, his only, his best, bright addition.
“Dear, dear Astra, how are you feeling?” he asked now.
“Daddy,” Astra said, and she smiled when she told him how corny he was.
He told his daughter who had come to the Mortons’. Mrs. Forestal was there, so Mr. Forestal was not. Mr. and Mrs. Van de Ven, Mrs. Abiola, the Cohens, and Mr. Fratini were there. “I talked a lot to Alex’s mother—is that woman crazy? The Johnsons were not in attendance. The headmistress, Miss Brigham, was there for a short speech, and she asked after you—everyone there asked after you, darling. Everyone sends love.” Then he remembered that the Johnsons were in Europe meeting somebody royal.
Astra said, “The Johnsons have expensive fights that end with new jewels.”
The Mortons’ apartment was all bloody mahogany and damask. Crystal chandeliers, those plinking rainbows, were hanging everywhere. Double sconces, elaborate molding, herringbone floors. The caterers were using monogrammed family silver. The word expansive came to mind, or a three-tiered cake on a crystal stand, a monument in buttercream frosting, swags of sugar violets, silver dots. That was the equivalent dessert to the Mortons’ apartment as far as Mr. Dell was concerned. He looked at Astra again and saw how tired she was; her eyelids looked swollen as if she had been crying, and perhaps she had cried. He hadn’t been here for all the tests; he was at work.
“I wish I could be hungry,” Astra said. She shut her eyes.
Good night, ladies, good night, ta, ta, or however it went. Mr. Dell thought literature should be a consolation, but what he most often remembered did not comfort him. He did not have his wife’s gift, Astra’s inheritance from Grace for hope and serenity. Sick as his little girl was, she yet lay hopeful of recovery—fearful, too, at times, at times overwhelmed, given to deep, jagged sobs, and yet . . . she was sick and in pain on a sad floor in the hospital, and yet she seemed to feel his terror, his sorrow, and she consoled him by being mostly mild, sleepy, quiet. Most of the time when he visited, she slept and slept. She grew smaller.
Again he asked and again, day after day, “How do you feel?”
Better. Not well. Sick. Hurting. Hurting a lot. Here is where it hurts the most. Look at what they did.
Why was it hard to look when he had already looked into disaster, into the broken face of his beautiful wife in a bag on a gurney? Yes, he remembered saying to the figures standing behind him—a row of janitors, a man with a mop at attention was that who? Policemen? Morticians? Yes. My wife. This is Grace Walker Dell, yes. My wife.
What business had Grace there on that street at that hour? Why had she not been home, but she was saving money looking for a new lamp on Bowery. He wanted her here with him at this other, terrible bedside. He should not have to be alone.
Theta Kovack called First Wok and ordered garlic chicken, noodles, soup. Two Cokes. Marlene, at her ear, said, “General Tsao’s! Get General Tsao’s!” But Theta said, “Aren’t you on a diet?” and she scuffed off her shoes and unbuttoned her blouse. The twenty she extracted from her purse felt damp. “For when the guy comes,” she said, holding out the money. She let her skirt slip down her hips as she walked to her room and shimmied out of work. Of course, she didn’t want to see herself, but she saw herself, or parts of herself, her belly rucked by the band of her slip, an angry redness she rubbed at. Glad she had not gone to the Mortons’ party arrived wrongly dressed. Now the damp smell was surely hers, and nothing of Dr. Bickman’s office—the minty wintergreen of mouthwash, the cleansing alcohol, the doilies on the trays of tools—remained. A subway with a few stops and a three-block walk was all it had taken to grease Theta’s face.
Miss Wilkes, undressing at home, sniffed the bitter smell at the underarms of her turtleneck and said, “My god!” She sniffed again. When did her sweat turn so peculiarly acrid? The face she saw in the mirror, her own, seemed still a girl’s, not a teacher’s, but the stink of her was something awful, old. True, the girls themselves were not always so fresh. Edie Cohen, in her usual rush, liked to announce she hadn’t showered. The girls said, “Keep your arms down. Stay away!” But the girls got up close to each other and examined each other and were amused or mockingly repelled by what they sometimes found. “Want an Altoid?” Good girls mostly, polite, they offered her Skittles and mints, whatever they had secreted—and she allowed. Miss Wilkes said, “Yeah, I would like,” and she took her favorite colors. They got up close for her to pick and seemed startled at what they saw. What did they see? But they were never so familiar as to fix her. They would let her go through a class smudged rather than say, “Miss Wilkes, you’ve got ink on your chin.” Only Lisa Van de Ven had stopped her, had said, “Wait.” Lisa it was who had tucked in the label of her shirt, who had said, “Miss Wilkes,” holding out a box of Kleenex. Lisa Van de Ven, Lisa. Miss Wilkes was on the bed with the weight of her hand between her legs.
In a corner apartment with a southwestern view of Park Avenue’s islands bedded with begonias, glossy begonias, Suki Morton’s mother held the phone in one hand and a drink in the other and heard her daughter’s screed against that fat Dr. Meltzer and his chem class labs. “He keeps us late. He piles on the homework. We’re seniors, for god’s sake. We’re under a lot of stress as it is. I hate Dr. Meltzer.”
Mrs. Morton could not come up with an expression. Dr. Meltzer was a name attached to a fat man who smelled like the movies. Buttery and smoky at the same time. Butter-yellow teeth. Short-sleeved shirt, pocket protector, high waist, and waddle. Surely encountered in the movies but a teacher to be found in a public school, never one like Siddons. Mrs. Morton hung up the phone and said, “I never liked science.”
Ten blocks south, Suki’s best friend, Alex, was watching cheese melt over chips. She was talking to herself, rehearsing a college interview, saying that what she loved about this college was there were more boys than girls, better parties, good drugs. Alex was saying her ambition was to be the most famous party girl the school had ever known, and she knew what she was doing, and she could meet this goal.
Car Forestal twisted utensils through food she had mashed to look like war salvage, drought gruel, rancid scraps from boarding school. She was at the orphanage and eating with her baby “pusher,” the tiny silver spade from her godmother. Car pushed and smoothed and rearranged the food; she made patterns.
Copyright © 2008 by Christine Schutt
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
Meet the Author
CHRISTINE SCHUTT is the author of the short-story collection Nightwork. Her work, which has garnered an O. Henry Prize and a Pushcart Prize, is published widely in literary journals. Schutt lives and teaches in New York City.
- Place of Birth:
- Watertown, Wisconsin
- B.A., M.A., University of Wisconsin; M.F.A., Columbia University
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I guess it's true what they say - Don't judge a book by its cover. I really liked he cover of this book, so obviously I gave it a go. Too bad I couldn't even get past the first chapter. I found it too confusing and too many characters with few detail were mentioned before the second chapter. I couldn't grasp the concept of the book, though I liked what I could understand of the plot. I'm not one to simply give up reading a book, but as much as I tried I couldn't get into the story. A real dissapointment.
This book was AWESOME!! I loved it!!! This book kept me reading and wanting more. I thought this book was good because in a way I could relate to Astra. I mean not the part about being sick but the part about not being able to dance. This book really made me stop and think about all the things that I can do and not all the things I can't do. I can dance in my entire dance in all my dance shows, unlike Astra who can't dance because she has that really bad disease there for causing her not to dance. My feelings about this book were very sad. They were sad because I felt like I could have done something to help her and to be her friend because she didn't have any friends. So I felt like she needed a friend. Those are my thoughts and feeling about this book. I would recommend this book to teenage girls, especially girls who take dance classes and love the sport of dance.
I tried, I really tried - I began twice, in fact, and found the book to be superficial, with shallow character development. From now on I will not read reviews, I will see if I can read the first few pages before I waste my money.
All Souls is an amazing character development of a group of girls in a private school who are touched by the seemingly terminal illness of one of their friends. The interplay between the friends and themselves, the sick girl, and their parents, mirrors many of the issues that face families and students today, even though the novel is set many years before. All kinds of jealousies occur. An overwhelming desire of several senior girls to get into Brown makes the college plans of others in the class seem less worthwhile until the end of the book. Those who considered themselves "the best friend," of the sick young girl are nonplussed by the fact that the outcast of the group is the only one who actually visits her regularly. Two teachers, who can never seem to address their actual feelings, find catharsis in their visits to the hospital. And, one friend actually addresses the true fate looming, even though she does so in blunt and untactful words. For the reasons outlined above, and the dysfunctional family situations portrayed, the characters of this novel amuse, entertain, sadden, and challenge the reader. But, the real value of the book is the fact that the reader has to stop cold several times and ask, "have I acted like that?", "do I feel like that?", "has my life been like that?" There are so many mirrors placed before the reader that this book continues to bring pause long after the last page is read.
Who is off vampires for a while
There aren't any descriptions of tranquil happy school years, those 'good old golden rule days' are prehistoric in Christine Schutt's spot on story of the students, parents, and teachers at Manhattan's Siddons School for Girls. A New York prep school teacher herself Schutt well knows of what she writes, and she does so with always delicate, sometimes sparse yet revelatory prose. Characters are displayed to a farthing in snippets of conversation or thoughts. At the center of the story is Astra Dell, a senior class girl who is suffering from a rare form of cancer. She is that 'pale girl...the dancer with all the hair, the red hair, knotted or braided or let to fall to her waist, a fever, and she consumed.' Her father is scarcely able to cope with his beloved daughter's illness. He longs for Grace, his late wife who was killed in an auto accident. Despite Astra's suffering, knowing his sorrow, it is she who tries to console him. Carlotta Forestal, known as Car, is Astra's best friend. Car has an eating problem, devoting the tense meals shared with her mother to simply pushing and mashing the food on her plate. She has a retreat - her father's apartment to which she has a key. She would go there simply to wander about and phone. It is there that she can light a cigarette and 'ash it on the table.' Mr. Forestal had an unlisted number and her mother didn't know it, so she was safe. Car thinks of Astra and writes frequent notes to her, which are added to the surfeit of good wishes, balloons and flowers that decorate her hospital room. Another who often thinks of Astra is Marlene Kovak who visits her often, and pens lengthy letters to her. These missiles are sometimes single spaced and three pages long. Marlene will sit in a corner of the school lounge, listening, taking notes, all to be relayed to Astra. A misfit among the daughters of wealth Marlene is an enigma. She attends Siddons solely because her mother, Theta, borrowed money to keep her there. Theta works in a dentist's office to maintain their modest home and make payments on her debt. Theta is as out of place among the mothers as Marlene is among the students, most of whom are economically privileged and emotionally deprived. Some other soon to graduate students are Alex and Suki, best friends, who yearn to be party girls and whose college acceptance is assured thanks to family wealth. Although in a group they often engage in sub rosa conversations. As obsessed as they are with their own futures they, too, are affected by Astra's illness, remembering that she came back to school the day after her mother's funeral and agreeing, 'She's perfect.' Add to this mix the teachers, specifically Anna Mazur who had come to New York from Michigan seeking 'sophistication and experience.' She found neither, is attracted to Tim Weeks, the most popular teacher at Siddons, and continuously confuses the names of two black girls. When asked, 'Do we all look alike, Miss Mazur?' The thought is 'The problem was the girls did look alike.' Another faculty member is Dr. Meltzer, 'a fat man who smelled like the movies.' After a mishap in class, he screams at a girl, 'Who do you think you are?' The reply is 'A Du Pont.' This is the world Schutt invites us to enter, and it is a fascinating one peopled with finely wrought characters and quite memorable. - Gail Cooke