Title: Rules at the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publication date: Originally published 2010; reissued 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
It’s summer, but school is in session in the delightful second book of New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan’s utterly charming School by the Sea series, set at a girls’ boarding school in Cornwall.
For the second year at Downey House, it’s getting harder and harder to stick to the rules . . .
Maggie Adair’s first year as a teacher at Downey House was a surprising success. After making the leap from an inner-city school in Glasgow, she’s learned to appreciate the mellower pace of the girls’ boarding school by the sea.
Now engaged to her longtime boyfriend, sweet and steady Stan, Maggie’s just got to stop thinking about David McDonald, her colleague at the boys’ school down the road. Well, hasn’t she? Can Maggie take a leaf out of the Well Behaved Teacher’s exercise book and stick to her plan for a small but elegant wedding and settled life of matrimony?
Even as Maggie tries to stay within the lines, rules are being broken all around her. Maggie’s boss, headmistress Veronica Deveral, has more to lose than anyone. When Daniel Stapleton joins the faculty, Veronica finds herself forced to confront a scandalous secret she thought she’d carefully buried forever. How long will she be able to keep her past under wraps?
What does a new year of classes, rules, and camaraderie hold for the students and faculty at Downey House?
After listening to the first book in the Little School series, Welcome to the School by the Sea, I thought I’d wait a bit and enjoy the anticipation before listening to the second… but in the end, I just had to see what happens next!
In Rules at the School by the Sea, we start a new school year alongside teacher Maggie, headmistress Veronica, and the rambunctious group of girls — Simone, Fliss, and Alice — we got to know in the first book.
Maggie is much more settled into her life at Downey House. She’s more confident in her teaching abilities, and plans to grab her girls’ attention by focusing on romantic poetry from the World War I era during English lessons. Maggie and her long-time boyfriend Stan have recently become engaged, but Maggie seems to be in a bit of denial: She doesn’t really have any interest in wedding plans, and despite Stan’s urging, really doesn’t want to leave Downey House and look for a teaching job in Glasgow.
For Veronica, she’s both thrilled to have her biological son teaching at the nearby boys’ school, but also worried about whether news of her having once given up a baby for adoption will create a scandal among her staff and the parents. Meanwhile, she and Daniel are cautiously beginning to get to know one another, but Veronica is finding it almost impossible to balance her growing love for her son and his family with her deeply ingrained need for privacy.
And the girls — well, what can we say about a bunch of 14 (almost 15) -year-old girls in all their glorious confusion of hormones and growing up and still being so very young in so many ways? A new girl, Zelda — the daughter of a US army officer temporarily stationed in the UK — shakes up the group of friends with her brashness and American approach to school, while Fliss and Alice fall out over a boy and Simone takes Zelda up on her offer of a total image makeover. There are arguments and rule-breaking and hilarity, and it’s quite fun to see the girls’ petty squabbles as well as their friendship and commitment to one another.
Rules is quite a lot of fun, capturing the excitement of the school year from the perspective of the students as well as that of the teachers. Overall, I quite enjoyed this 2nd book, but I did feel particularly frustrated by Maggie’s romance story line.
Maggie has been with Stan for ages and cares for him, but she’s so clearly in love with (and better suited for) David, the English teacher from the boys’ school. Maggie spends the entire book trying to convince herself that her crush on David is just a passing phase, and that she really does want to marry Stan — but it’s entirely obvious that she and Stan have grown apart and want very different things out of their lives. It seemed as though there were plenty of opportunities for Maggie to face the truth and take responsibility for breaking off the engagement with Stan, but each time, she backtracks and recommits, even though she isn’t actually happy.
I know this back-and-forth love triangle stuff is supposed to add drama and tension, but after a while, it just makes it seem as though Maggie is emotionally unaware, and that doesn’t feel true to her character. There’s a bit of a cliffhanger ending in the final chapter, but it does appear that Maggie has finally had an epiphany and is on the verge of taking action… and I hope that’s really the case! (This is why I’ll probably grab the 3rd book the very first second that I can — I need to know what happens next!!)
On a more serious note, the problematic focus on Simone’s weight from book #1 continues here. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Simone making an effort to adopt healthy eating habits if that’s what feels right to her, but the over-emphasis on being slim in order to gain popularity and attract boys leads to an eating disorder for another of the girls in the group. On the one hand, I’m glad that the darker aspects of this focus on dieting are shown, but there’s still something very uncomfortable about how much weight and appearance matter in the girls’ lives. (Perhaps this is an aftereffect of the fact that this book was originally published in 2010 — if it were written today, I’d hope that the fat-shaming and focus on a specific standard for acceptable bodies would be addressed or eliminated altogether).
My frustration with the romance and the weight/dieting storylines aside, I did find Rules a sweet, entertaining, engaging read. I love how the storyline bounces between the adults and students, and how we get to see each sides’ attitudes and perceptions about the other. The characters are all quite endearing — even the obnoxious spoiled girls have something going for them — and the story as a whole is just such a yummy treat in the way it presents a somewhat idealized yet still modern-day version of life at a lovely boarding school.
This is the 2nd book in a series that was originally published over 10 years ago under a pseudonym, now being reissued with spiffed-up covers, titles, and the actual author’s name! The third reissue, Lessons at the School by the Sea, will be released in March 2023 — although since I have a paperback of the original version, I may have to read it much sooner. (Apparently, I am terrible at waiting.)
The audiobook is very enjoyable — I really liked the narrator’s approach to voicing the different characters. She does a very good job of capturing their personalities, although I found her version of an American/Texan accent for Zelda incredibly grating and overdone. Otherwise, though, it’s a charming listening experience.
And finally, one lovely bit is that the audiobook ends with a collection of Maggie’s poems — the poetry she teaches her class over the course of the school year. It was a sweet treat to get to hear all of these after the main story had concluded, and even though pieces of some of these are included earlier in the story, it was lovely to get to listen to them in their entirety. (My favorite of these is Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou — see the full text here).
Another nice little bit at the end — after finishing the audiobook, I picked up my paperback edition and discovered that the final piece included is step-by-step instructions for some of the dances that the girls learn, including The Dashing White Sergeant, Strip the Willow, and Eightsome Reel. (I can’t actually visualize the dances from reading the instructions, but seeing these pages is motivating me to go look for dance videos online.)
Wrapping it all up…
I love when a first book’s promise is delivered on in the second book, and that’s definitely the case with Rules at the School by the Sea. There’s much still unresolved plot-wise, but it’s wonderful to see these likable characters continue to learn and grow, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for all of them!