To Leo Binhammer the girls of the Carmine-Casey School for Girls are like “hummingbirds, their delicate, overheated bodies fretting in short, angled bursts of movement around a bottle of red sugar water.”
You would expect Binhammer’s description to be archly poetic – he is, after all, the only male teacher in the English department. At least he is until he is upstaged by the arrival of another rooster among the fold, one Ted Hughes (no, not THAT one…) who threatens to unseat Binhammer not only as the sole male idol for the hormonally challenged members of the student body, but with his wife Sarah, who has a connection of her own with the Poet Laureate’s namesake.
Joshua Gaylord’s novel Hummingbirds, is a sly look inside the world of an exclusive girls prep school during the course of one very eventful year. Written from the dual perspective of student/teacher, and the intersection of their worlds, the novel gives the reader a birds eye view into microcosm of private school society. The girls are no innocents – at least, they don’t want their teachers to think they are. The teachers themselves are fraught with enough emotional angst to keep any number of New York City therapists in Manolo Blaniks and Prada.
Initially, this novel took me back to my own high school years at Ladywood High School, and our token male English teacher, Mr. Malone. I clearly recalled groups of us fluttering around his desk, innundating him with giggles and our most flirtatious behavior. But eventually Gaylord strays into territory my classmates and I never ventured to go, with consequences far more serious and long-lasting.
Gaylord, himself a prep school literature teacher, obviously knows whereof he speaks. “I think high school is a microcosm of adult social life – except that everything for teenagers is less subtle, more dramatic, and quicker,” Gaylord says. “But I think it’s certainly true that what teenagers feel (almost cartoonishly) are the same things that adults feel in more managed and repressed ways: petty jealousy, gut-wrenching adoration, bleak self-loathing. So it’s not surprising that the social groups for adults and teenagers are cut from the same material.”
Hummingbirds, by Joshua Gaylord * Harper Perennial * 2009 * 342 pages with “extras”
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this novel.