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Success Stories

by Rosemary Cania Maio


ISBN 1 4033 1951 0
Published by 1stBooks Library, 2002
674pp, paperback
Retail price $28.95

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Review by Deborah Fisher

Revenge has provided many a writer with motivation. I can think of worse reasons for producing a novel, but I wonder whether Rosemary Cania Maio shouldn't have waited longer for the dish to grow cold before going into print. There is no doubt in my mind that many of the sufferings of her main characters reflect her own experience as a teacher. It will come as no surprise to most British readers to learn that the profession as a whole is underpaid and overworked (though some may be interested to discover that this is as true in the USA's state school system as it is in the UK public sector). The question is, does it take over 650 pages to make this clear?

It wasn't so much that I lost interest while reading. Many of the details enumerated in the early chapters were such that, had the author been telling me about them in conversation, I would have been riveted. I did, however, become impatient for the story to begin; this book is definitely not a "page-turner", and that has to be a disadvantage in such a huge volume. I began to be daunted by the prospect of reading every word, but there was no possibility of simply turning to the last page to discover the ending before I even knew what the plot was going to be about.

The fundamental problem is that there are too many abuses and inefficiencies flooding the author's mind -- things she wants to draw our attention to, for the very best of reasons. It would have been better to focus on one or two of these and make them the centre of the book. As it is, they simply obscure the basic story. Even the very original ploy of using different literary forms to convey the plight of the small group of female English teachers at the centre of the book does not succeed in retaining the reader's interest sufficiently to make the point of the story inescapable. The characterisation is clear and effective, the dialogue believable and familiar, yet the message somehow becomes lost.

Another curious thing about the book is that it is set in the year 1980. The theme having been identified by the cover notes as "the age of disillusion" leads me to wonder whether in fact the 1980s were a particularly hard time for American teachers (as they were for British ones). My suspicion, though, is that the action is set in this period because it is one with which the author is familiar. Having (perhaps unreasonably) expected some kind of update at the end, I was frustrated at not being able to hear how Alyssa's career turned out. Why cut off the course of events at that point? If the passage of time is integral to the storyline, as it appears to be, and if part of the book's purpose is to acquaint us with the problems heaped on the teaching profession by bureaucracy and legislation, why not give us some hint of how things developed in later years? As it is, I feel the lack of a resolution.

Those Who Give is in many ways a feminist novel. The closest thing to a villain, the couldn't-care-less Erica Vetterly (the kind of person we've all encountered in our schooldays, the one who gives the teaching profession a bad name) is as feminine as Margaret Thatcher, and her failure only underlines the fact that women, in general, make good teachers. In other ways, this isn't a novel at all. At times, it more closely resembles a manual on how to survive a career in teaching. There is no plot as such, though there are incidents and themes and threads to be followed, some of which eventually come together. Alyssa's attempts to juggle her professional standards and give her husband a little of her attention, Bonnie's affair with a student, the problems and triumphs of individual pupils: all these are touched on. The three main characters are confronted with various stresses and traumas, some of them directly or indirectly caused by their profession: Alyssa struggles with a mystery ailment, Jean is suddenly bereaved, but has to return to work to support her family. Bonnie's tragedy, which has enough strength to hold a novel together if properly used, doesn't even begin to grip the reader's attention until the book is nearly over.

At the same time, Alyssa is having long conversations about embroidery, stained glass, pastry-making and various episodes in English literature. These diversions result in an impression that the author is actively trying to instruct the reader. In fiction, that is rarely a good thing. By the last chapter, I was getting quite tired of hearing what a wonderful teacher Alyssa was, and how under-appreciated.

The irony is that the author has an extensive knowledge of English literature in its various forms, and her written English is impeccable. Unfortunately, she seldom resists the urge to hammer home every point several times over, instead of keeping the narrative clear and concise -- which would have served her purpose better in the long run. I constantly wondered whether the (largely unstructured) mass of words that confronted me was intended as an experiment. Rosemary Cania Maio had enough good material here to produce three readable novels. I wish I knew why she opted for a single massive tome that, sadly, few people are going to have the stamina to read from cover to cover. With luck, she may have kept something in reserve.

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