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Hummingbirds    by Joshua Gaylord order for
by Joshua Gaylord
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2009 (2009)
* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

You'll walk the sequestered halls of the Carmine-Casey School for Girls, a posh prep school on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and meet the staff and coeds in this novel written by a man who teaches in such an institution. Told from the vantage point of both faculty and students, Hummingbirds chronicles a very memorable senior year.

Although the lives of a select number of students and faculty members provide the subject matter for Joshua Gaylord's debut as a novelist, his primary focus is on just four individuals.

On one hand there is popular, coquettish Dixie Doyle whose nemesis is Liz Warren, the introverted but very talented senior class brain. The two girls are not necessarily competing with one another but they manage to continually butt heads. For example, Liz authors and directs the school play and since Dixie is the most accomplished actress in their class, she naturally has the lead role.

Obviously the novel's title is an allusion to all his students and their birdlike qualities. For example, they chirp in the hallways and continually flock together. But on another level, assuming the author really understands the possessive, territorial nature of hummingbirds, this word choice is very apropos for that possessiveness is also a quality exhibited by both sets of the major characters.

As a counterpoint to Dixie and Liz, we have male faculty members Leo Binhammer and Ted Hughes. Their relationship is a little more complex. As the English Department's only male staff member, Leo has been the darling of the students and his colleagues for years. Hughes' arrival threatens this position, yet the two men form a fairly close professional bond.

Complicating the situation is the fact that before he got his present job, Hughes had a brief affair with Leo's wife. The young teacher doesn't realize who shared his bed at a weekend conference but Leo is aware of the fact and chooses not to address the issue.

As the relationship develops, Hughes becomes the older teacher's alter ego. Leo doesn't admit this fact until the very end of the story when he refers to Hughes as 'his brother, his usurper, his dark double'.

The reader quickly realizes that at Carmine-Casey School knowledge is power but not in the usual sense. It is the secrets one knows that are important. What one character knows that another doesn't creates an 'arsenal of information' which allows the one in the know to be a puppeteer and pull the strings that makes everyone else dance.

Overall, this is a curious novel. Although I found the characters interesting, I must also admit I didn't care for any of them. Their relationships are filled with deception and dishonesty. While the adolescents are understandably trying to act like adults, the adults behave, all too often, like adolescents. Both age groups fluctuate between bouts of boredom, indecision, distraction and insecurity. Because it is filled with so many needy individuals, there are times when you may find it necessary to just set this book aside and take a break because it can be rather draining.

Although the author often hits the mark when it comes to capturing the prep school environment, he has a tendency to overwrite. (That, admittedly, may be an occupational shortcoming since I apparently am doing it now!) But, there are moments when his apparent need to create memorable similes becomes such a distraction that it destroys the flow of the narrative.

Also, at times, I experienced a strong sense of deja vu. As a retired teacher I've read a lot of student papers. There were fleeting moments when I had the feeling I was again reading a precocious student's journal filled with adolescent angst and clever observations about life. Then again, there were moments I thought, 'If Woody Allen ever wanted to produce a film about neurotic teachers, this book could provide his script.'

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