Mary-Lou of the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

I’m very gradually re-reading my way through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, interspersing it with other books. Looking back, I’m startled to find that it’s as long ago as 2009 when I determined to do this, starting with ‘The School at the Chalet’, after acquiring several of the books in hardback. By the time I finish, I’ll probably be ready to start reading them over again.

‘Mary-Lou at the Chalet School’ is 34th in the original series, although the numbering has slightly changed with the paperback editions as some of the longer hardbacks were re-issued in two separate volumes. Mary-Lou Trelawny is one of the strongest characters in the series, introduced in ‘Three Go to the Chalet School’. By the time this story opens she’s fifteen, and returning to school a week late as she’s just lost her beloved grandmother.

Mary-Lou meets a new girl called Jessica who seems to have a permanent black shadow hanging over her. She’s told everyone else to leave her alone, and they’ve done so. But Mary-Lou is determined to find out what’s wrong. She’s grown up quite a bit since her early, outspoken years, and has learned some tact, so she ponders for a while before trying to get to the root of the problem.

Joey Maynard (formerly Bettany) doesn’t play much part in this book, other than a scene with Mary-Lou where she explains some of Jessica’s background and encourages Mary-Lou to offer friendship and support. I like books about Joey best, but it doesn’t matter too much in this; Mary-Lou is as complex as Jo, and we get to know her quite well in this volume.

In the middle of the book there are a couple of ‘educational’ chapters when the school is taken on an outing and the girls ask lots of questions about history and geography… I usually skim sections like that, which the author always liked to include where possible. But at the end of the book there’s an extremely moving section where I found I had tears in my eyes for two or three pages - and that despite remembering what was going to happen. The writing isn’t the greatest; there are too many descriptions of food and irrelevant small talk, but that doesn’t matter too much when the people seem so real.

I doubt if most modern teenagers would be interested in this series, set in the middle of the 20th century in a girls’ school in Switzerland, yet many of the books have been re-published with the full original text, and usually sell out rapidly. I previously had an Armada abridged version, so was pleased to be able to read it, this time, in the full hardback. Perhaps some of the irrelevancies were cut in the paperback.

Recommended to all who enjoyed this series in their teens, and - in a low-key way - to anyone who likes 20th century school stories of this genre. Each book in the Chalet School series theoretically stands alone but the characters are built up over several books, so I'd recommend reading at least a few others before this one.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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