A Genius at the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

My reading of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series was rather random until a few years ago. I would pick up one of her books when I needed to read something light and undemanding, preferably accompanied by a cat and some chocolate. I re-read some of my favourites fairly often, and managed to ignore some others for lengthy periods.

But six years ago I determined to read the books in order, beginning with ‘The School at the Chalet’, which I re-read for the umpteenth time in 2009. So it's taking me a while! I’m mostly reading them interspersed with a variety of other books, and sometimes forget about them entirely.

However, I recently read and enjoyed ‘Mary-Lou of the Chalet School’, and since I had a couple of hours on my own yesterday afternoon, I thought I’d pick up the next one. That was ‘A Genius at the Chalet School’, which for some reason was divided into two volumes when the series was re-published by Armada paperbacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The first volume of this is still called by its original title; the second part has become ‘Chalet School Fete’, which I proceeded to read immediately afterwards. I don’t think they have been much abridged at all from the originals, although it appears that I had not read either of them for at least sixteen years.

The story in this first part is about Nina Rutherford, who has been brought up by her widowed father, and who, at the age of 15, has become a highly talented pianist. She is determined to be a concert pianist and works at the piano for at least four hours each day.

Just before the story starts, she has lost her beloved father in an accident in Italy. Her guardian turns out to be her father’s cousin Guy, who travels to meet her and bring her to live with his family in England. He’s not prepared for an artistic temperament and single-minded determination to play the piano, in addition to her deep grief. But eventually she’s persuaded to go with him, as she has little choice.

A chance encounter with some of the Chalet School girls cheers Nina up a little, and Guy - who doesn’t really understand her passion for music, but is kind-hearted and wants to do what’s best - decides to send her there, to the branch in Switzerland.

Nina’s a likeable girl, perhaps a little caricatured in her selfishness; yet there are several references to her being a ‘genius’, and thus slightly unbalanced in pursuit of her aims. Those who understand her feel sympathy rather than envy at her astounding talent, but as she gets to know other Chalet School girls and settles down, she discovers that there are some other things are as important as music.

There’s a fair amount about the day-to-day life of the girls in the school, some of which I found interesting, and some a bit tedious. Descriptions of prefects’ meetings or meals often seem a bit long-winded, and I skimmed rapidly through the final chapter, which gives too much detail about a school pantomime. But there are some quite moving sections too, and Nina’s emotional development is nicely done.

Favourite characters re-appear and references are made to quite a few events from earlier books, so although each volume of the Chalet School series stands alone, I wouldn’t recommend reading this one unless you’ve read at least a few of the others beforehand.

In a sense, as is probably obvious from this review, this story follows the same pattern as so many others (potentially difficult pupil joins the school, runs into a few problems, meets some nice people, and eventually becomes a ‘real’ Chalet School girl…) but it’s a formula that’s quite effective, and this one, featuring a ‘genius’, is at least slightly different.

Still, I wouldn't particularly recommend this unless you're a serious fan of the series. There are other, better ones if you just want to read a couple.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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