"The Crazy School"
(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAR 8, 2008)
Cornelia Read's The Crazy School opens in 1989. Twenty-six year old Madeline Dare is a history teacher at the Santangelo Academy in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The academy's pupils are disturbed teenagers, many of whom have been released from psychiatric hospitals and are currently taking medication to keep them on an even keel. Although Madeline cares about her students, the stress of the job is getting to her. The kids curse and throw things, make suggestive remarks, and show little respect for themselves, let alone authority figures. Nor does Madeline enjoy the twice weekly sessions that every teacher must attend under the direction of Sookie, a therapist who is well-meaning but incredibly cloying. In addition, since cigarettes and caffeine are banned on campus, Madeline sneaks around to grab some smokes and guzzle caffeinated beverages with her pal and fellow teacher, Lulu. Although Madeline is sorely tempted to quit, her husband is out of work, and they need her salary to keep them afloat.
On the plus side, Madeline's class size is tiny. Using language that teenagers understand, she tries to convey her knowledge about such topics as World War II, the United Nations, the McCarthy era, and the "flower power" of the sixties (which she experienced firsthand as the child of hippies). What passes for calm in the school is suddenly shattered when a student violently pushes his hand through a window and shortly thereafter confides to Madeline that his girlfriend is pregnant. Things go from bad to worse when the two are found dead after drinking punch spiked with poison. Could they have taken their own lives in a fit of despair? Madeline has reason to believe that this is a case of homicide, not suicide, and she turns sleuth in order to bring the killer to justice. Her mission becomes even more urgent when the police supsect that she may have had a hand in the tragedy.
The first half of the novel is funny and sharp, with bright and intelligent dialogue that is both sardonic and witty. The author scores points satirizing phonies who make money peddling bogus therapies to gullible clients. The colorful characters include: Dhumavati, the sympathetic dean of students; Mindy, an obnoxious teacher whose deep loathing of Madeline is fully reciprocated; Sookie, the aforementioned therapist, who is like "a golden retriever--big-pawed, blonde, and brimming with indiscriminate affection;" Santangelo, an egotistical bully who runs his school with an iron hand and uses arbitrary rules to keep everyone in line; and Wiesner, a young man who can be charming when he isn't blowing something up or threatening a teacher with a carving knife.
The Crazy School loses steam when it becomes a conventional murder mystery culminating in an implausible and silly denouement laced with cartoonish violence. Startling and long-winded revelations reveal the rot at the school's core. When the author keeps things light and breezy, her book is entertaining and refreshing. However, the dour and improbable conclusion is jarring and detracts from the story's considerable entertainment value.
- Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Cornelia Read
- January Magazine interview with Cornelia Read
- Poe's Deadly Daughters interview with Cornelia Read
- Spinetingler Magazine interview with Cornelia Read
- Curled Up review of The Crazy School
- ReviewsOfBooks review of The Crazy School
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About the Author:
Cornelia Read was born in 1963 in New York, New York. She was subsequently raised near Big Sur by divorced hippie-renegade parents. Her childhood mentors included Sufis, surfers, single moms, Black Panthers, Ansel Adams, draft dodgers, striking farmworkers, and Henry Miller's toughest ping-pong rival.
At fifteen, Read returned east, attending boarding school and college on full scholarship. While in New York, she did time as a debutante at the Junior Assemblies, worming her way back into the Social Register following her expulsion when a regrettable tantrum on the part of her mother's boyfriend's wife landed them all on "Page Six" of the New York Post.
She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and twin daughters, the younger of whom has severe autism.