You go on to see how much Natalie has loved storytelling since she was little, how much she connects it with her late father, how much she has dedicated her book to him. It feels genuine but not sentimental, infusing her dreams of becoming a writer with deep roots. Then there’s her best friend, Zoe, whom the narration describes as the bulldog and the talker, and who goes so far as to act as her friend’s literary agent. You see how she goes to bat for Natalie with her persistence and her craftiness, how she thinks through everything to keep secret the fact that they’re only in sixth grade, how she empathizes with the book’s connection to Natalie’s father. You even get a third and a fourth POV through her mother Hannah, the unwitting editor who perceives the parallels between the girl’s father in The Cheater and her own husband/Natalie’s father, and Ms. Clayton, the English teacher who gets persuaded to guide the girls in spite of her tentativeness.
It’s interesting to see how much a couple things have changed in the publishing industry since this book was released in the early 2000s. It depicts all the good and big publishers being in New York, yet these days there are hundreds and hundreds of publishers all over the country, not to mention the self-publishing routes through vanity presses, the Amazon Kindle Direct Program, and other similar tactics. It shows all the manuscripts being sent through snail mail, contrasting with the many publishers these days who request emails instead of hard copies. However, the infamous slush pile is still a thing, but instead of piling up on desks, it fills up computer space. And call me persnickety, but having written since I was under the age of ten, I scrutinize the times when things feel slick, when Natalie writes and revises much faster than most anyone could in real life, when there’s no mention of a cover letter to accompany the manuscript, when certain things in the process click into place too smoothly.
Rounded characters who briskly progress the story and bring themselves to life with smart dialogue suited to their own voice — that’s a trademark I’ve seen in Clements’s work, and it’s certainly not lacking in this one. There’s even some dark chuckles within the austerity of Hannah’s boss, Letha, such as when Natalie “stared at the dents that the woman’s high heels had left in the carpet,” or “caught the sharp scent of Letha’s perfume and took a step backward.”
The second half of The School Story, where everything seems to be going well, is when things get just a little more complicated and the stakes are ramped up. The twists and turns of this journey feel as if they can belong to any of the strange-but-true success stories that we hear time and time again. It all comes to a head with Zoe’s deviousness helpfully coming into play once again. And all I’ll say about the conclusion on the final page is that it is absolutely perfect, a wholly satisfying ending.
Whether or not you read Clements’s books, whether or not you’re a fan of school stories, you should definitely give a whirl with this particular school story of heart and wit.
Windup score: 85/100