Title: Welcome to the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publication date: January 1, 2008 (reissued March 29, 2022)
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 54 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library (audiobook)
The first book of Jenny Colgan’s delightful new four-part series, set at a charming English boarding school on the sea.
Maggie went to the window and opened it wide, inhaling the lovely salt air off the sea. Why had she never lived by the sea before? Why had she always looked out on housing estates and not the little white hulls of trawlers bobbing off in the distance?
It’s gloriously sunny in Cornwall as the school year starts at the little boarding school by the sea. Maggie, the newest teacher at Downey House, is determined to make her mark. She’s delighted by her new teaching job, but will it come at the expense of her relationship with her safe, dependable boyfriend Stan?
Simone is excited and nervous: she’s won a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school and wants to make her parents proud. Forced to share a room with the glossy, posh girls of Downey House, she needs to find a friend, fast.
Fliss is furious. She’s never wanted to go to boarding school and hates being sent away from her home. As Simone tries desperately to fit in, Fliss tries desperately to get out.
Over the course of one year, friendships will bloom and lives will be changed forever. Life at the Little School by the Sea is never dull…
Jenny Colgan books are always a treat, and this one was an especially nice surprise! Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Beaton starting in 2008, the three books in this series were hard to find in the US, and I finally landed copies of the UK editions (titled Class, Rules, and Lessons) by ordering via EBay.
The series is now being reissued by Avon, with books 1 and 2 available, and #3 coming in early 2023. Although I’ve had my paperbacks for several years, seeing the new editions made me realize that it was finally time to give this series a try!
The books are set at an English boarding school, Downey House, located in a beautiful old manor house on the shores of Cornwall. While there are several point-of-view characters, our lead character is Maggie Adair, a young teacher from Glasgow who applies to Downey House on a whim. Maggie cares deeply about education and providing opportunities for youth, but she’s frustrated by her early years of teaching in an underfunded school where the headmaster doesn’t even bother learning new teachers’ names, since he’s sure they won’t last. Maggie spends her days on discipline and making sure her students are safe and have food, rather than being able to actually teach her beloved literature.
The job offer at Downey is a surprise to Maggie, as well as to her long-term boyfriend Stan, a good-natured guy who just wants life to continue as it’s been, with pub quizzes and a non-changing status quo. But Maggie sees Downey as an opportunity to truly stretch herself and grow as a teacher, and hopes to one day bring what she’s learned there back to Glasgow and its lackluster schools.
Downey House is run by the stern but impressive headmistress Veronica Deveral, who has secrets of her own. It’s an all-girls school, with a partner boys’ school just down the road. Students enter at age 13 and continue on for six years. Most are from hyper-privileged families, with money (oodles of it), fancy homes and vacations, and the clear impression that the world is theirs. Not all, though — there are the occasional scholarship students, and one of these is Simone (originally with the last name Kardashian, but changed for the new editions to Pribetich).
Simone is from a working-class Armenian-British family, a brilliant girl who’s shy and insecure after years of bullying in her local school. Downey is a chance for her to shine, but even there, she’s ostracized by her classmates from day one because of her looks, her background, and her embarassing family.
Then there’s Fliss, the younger daughter of a very popular older student (she’s a prefect!), who absolutely doesn’t want to leave her friends back home and go to a stupid posh school. Fliss is determined to get kicked out, so she breaks rules, has a nasty attitude, and teams up with one of the worst girls there to cause trouble and act up.
Maggie has a hard time fitting in at first, and the girls are obnoxious as hell about her Scottish accent. Still, she’s clearly a gifted teacher, if a bit headstrong, and begins to make a difference, and she finds a friend in the glamorous French teacher (who smokes contraband cigarettes out the window) and the dashing English teacher from the boys’ school.
Jenny Colgan writes in her author’s note that she grew up loving boarding school books, but not being able to find any for grown-ups, she decided to write some! Reading this book, it occurs to me that everything I know about English boarding schools basically comes from Harry Potter! I mean, prior to HP, I’d never heard of school houses or prefects or any of the other terms and concepts of this type of school — but reading Welcome to the School by the Sea, I had fun seeing how pieces I assumed were Hogwarts-specific are actually just elements of a boarding school (sans magic).
At Downey, the girls are divided into four houses (Wessex, Plantagenet, York, and Tudor), and live in house dorms with their classmates. There are school uniforms, mandatory sports sessions, classes and exams, and annoying teachers to gossip about. There are also pranks, holidays, performances, and competitions, as you’d expect in this kind of story.
I really enjoyed the interplay between the characters, and appreciated that the characters we spend the most time with (Maggie, Veronica, Fliss, and Simone) are each given well-developed backstories and their own sets of challenges and adventures.
Maggie’s romantic life quickly develops into a love triangle. Stan is not supportive of her new position and gives her a very hard time about it for most of the book. He’s a lovable doofus, and Maggie has been with him since they were teens — but clearly, he’s not the right guy for her. Underneath his mocking and lack of support, he does truly care for Maggie, but even though they stay together, we know this won’t last. Meanwhile, David from the boys’ school is surprising, fun, and very much in tune with Maggie in terms of dedication to education, and they seem to work. The triangle is left hanging by the end of the book, but it seems pretty obvious that the Maggie/David pairing is end-game for this series.
A few bits seem dated, or perhaps don’t quite fit with current sensitivities. For me, the most annoying was the emphasis on Simone’s weight. When she arrives at Downey, she’s quite heavy. It’s clear that she’s been overindulged with sweets by her doting mother, and due to the bullying she grew up with, has found refuge in food and has always tried to avoid further ridicule by shying away from physical activity. That’s all fine, as far as backstory goes, but she continues to be referred to as chubby or fat throughout the book, and after a while, it starts to feel like too much. The fact is, at Downey, she discovers that she’s a gifted field hockey goalie and starts to eat a healthier diet away from her mother’s influence, so whether or not she’s still plus-sized, she’s definitely getting healthy, and that should be applauded.
Other than that, there’s some mean girl business that’s a bit too obvious, but I was happy to see unexpected friendships formed by the end of the first year, and assume we’ll see these characters and their relationships continue to grow in the next books.
The audiobook is quite fun to listen to (although the audiobook uses Simone’s original last name, so it’s a little inconsistent when compared to print editions). At the start, I found the audiobook hard to follow, as we’re introduced to so many characters right away, each with their own POV sections. After a while, it becomes clearer, and I appreciated the narrator’s ability to give the various characters their own distinct voices.
Overall, this is a fun, engaging listen, and I can’t wait for more! Book #2 (Rules at the School by the Sea) is now available, so I’m already in the queue for it at the library, and I hope to listen to the 3rd as soon as it’s released. As for additional books, the synopsis (above) refers to this as a four-book series, although in the author’s notes, she mentions intending to write six books… but as of this moment, I don’t see anything specific online about books beyond the current three.
If you’ve visited my blog over the past few years, you may have noticed that I’m a Jenny Colgan fan. It’s true!! Her books are sweet, good-humored, and full of engaging, funny characters, and she excels at building a fictional community around key lovable, memorable characters. I can’t get enough, and I’m always excited for her new releases. Bring on Rules… and keep ’em coming!
6 thoughts on “Audiobook Review: Welcome to the School by the Sea (Maggie Adair, #1) by Jenny Colgan”
I do really love boarding school settings. And it’s set in Cornwall! That’s another favorite setting of mine. I have to read this book. 😀
I hope you check it out — would love to hear your reaction! Do you have any favorite boarding school books?
The Lake of Dead Languages and Good Girls Lie are two very good mystery/suspense novels that are set in boarding schools.
Thanks for the recommendations!
Ooh this sounds so good. And I also thought prefects and houses were a HP only thing, lol. I love the new covers!
Haha, I think HP was eye-opening for Americans in lots of ways!