Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Book Review

Poetic Peek Into Catholic School, With a Tartan Twist

THE SOPRANOS; by Alan Warner; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $23, 256 pages

April 02, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For those of us Americans raised on the anthems of Frank Zappa and the plays of Chris Durang, Alan Warner's requiem to a Catholic School girls' choir carries with it the nostalgic remembrance of fractured censers and smashed adolescences past. In "The Sopranos," the British author of the cult classic "Morvern Callar," cracks open the door to the confessional and verifies all our voyeuristic suspicions of what the real life of a 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl is all about--at least in rural Scotland.

"The Sopranos" tells of five "heroic bimboics"--Kylah, Chell, Manda, Orla and Fionnula (The Cooler)--who make up the soprano section of the Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls Choir, and their fateful trip from the Port to the Capitol to compete in the national singing finals. Our Lady of Perpetual Succour may not be heaven (27 girls pregnant), and the seconds and thirds may not be angels, but the sopranos are real hellions, determined to live up their free time in the city before the competition. Kylah (who has a band), Orla (who has cancer), Chell (incest), Manda (poverty), and Fionnula (well, let's leave some surprise), each travels her own long day's mall of shopping and drinking and bonking. But with fast-ending school careers preparing the girls for little more than the Big Tummy or the record counter at Woolworth's, the choir, as Fionnula says, is their only family, "a social thing, us, the all of us, thegether enjoying ourselves." And enjoy themselves they do.

It's "Fast Times at St. Ridgemont," "American Graffiti" in tartan (there's even a Richard Dreyfuss interloper from the seconds, a middle-class lass headed for university). Except, instead of a peek beneath the skirts of the Eisenhower (or Carter) years, here we are in late '90s Scotland. But don't get your hopes up about social commentary. Except for a bit of sloganeering, there's little political in "The Sopranos." And little we haven't heard or seen before.

Yet "The Sopranos" is indismissable--Warner's writing is so wittily, maddeningly good. The simple bus ride into Edinburgh becomes, "The bus moved along loch sides, swurled like a compass needle at their bridged-heads and travelled down opposite banks, so's you could look, cross water and see where you'd come from." His language is so poetic in its capture of person and place, that one keeps turning the page looking for a "Catcher in the Rye" (or even the Scotch) behind the next pub. Fionnula (The Cooler) and the middle-class, university-bound Kay Clark (a second, but with a great pair of legs) threaten a spring awakening of their own, as the Max and Moritz of the Forth. But at each launching pad toward Literature with a capital L, Warner reminds us that his heroines are pedestrians, ordinary girls, sopranos of East Enders and not the West End.

But if the philosophy is more sambuca than single malt, "The Sopranos" still makes a pleasant drink, trickling down the back of the throat with the creamy friendliness of a Monday night movie. It may be surprising for some to think of a half-dozen Catholic 17-year-old boozing and bouncing schoolgirls as being, well, wholesome--but that's what they are, as Warner loves them and leaves them the morning after, "none appearing much worse for wear as the day's sun came silvering over the bay and the tips of the back country hills, already in full summer flush in this the time of their lives."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|