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Book Review: St. Ursula's Girls


Published December 31, 2003 at 7:24 p.m.

They say that inside every cynic there's a frustrated idealist. In Charlotte writer Valerie Hurley's new novel, the reverse is true.

Raine Marie Rassaby, the novel's heroine, is one of that fascinating, exasperating breed of dreamers who makes you want to shout, "Get a grip!" A well-off teenager on New York's Upper West Side, Raine is given to statements such as, "I apologize for being an individual and not a flock of sheep." When asked to iron her clothes, she replies, "I would, Daddy, but I met this Hindu in the street who says that ironing causes a cruel death to the tiny mites living in the fabric." Asked about her goals, she replies modestly, "Rid the world of nuclear weapons… I figure it's me or them."

After being thrown out of various private schools, Raine lands at St. Ursula's Academy, where she organizes the activist group of the title. That doesn't leave much time for her studies. A mild-mannered guidance counselor, who's also her next-door neighbor, is assigned the task of "shepherding" her toward graduation. Though Al Klepatar is frustrated on a daily basis by Raine's refusal to care about her high-school diploma as much as disappearing amphibians and the nuclear stockpile, he still finds himself envying her courage to stray from the flock: "Part of him wanted her to stray farther and even lead him on."

When his own carefully orchestrated life begins to fall apart, Al does "stray" into Raine's world of dreams and chaos, and their teacher-student relationship takes on a new, surprising form.

Much like that relationship, St. Ursula's Girls evades easy classification. In its early pages, rife with rapturous descriptions of Raine's bird-haunted garden, the novel feels a little precious. Despite her obsession with the Holocaust and the A-bomb, Raine lives what seems to be a charmed life in a Manhattan brownstone. With her distant parents and maternal Green-landic housekeeper, she's like an updated, p.c. Harriet the Spy who's fixated on becoming Helen Caldicott rather than Mata Hari. When Raine gets herself arrested for lying across the threshhold of a military academy in a skeleton costume, she looks like an affluent child playing games -- no closer to genuine political dissent than Harriet was to the world of international espionage.

And yet, flaky as she can be, Raine won me over. Perhaps it's because she has the self-awareness to peg herself as "basically a very idealistic and slothful person." Perhaps it's because she has a wry sense of humor, and she's cynical enough to know what she's up against. No wide-eyed naïf, Raine has been schooled in the darker lessons of the past by a Slovakian grandmother who hid Jews from the Nazis and, in a defiant postwar gesture, converted to Judaism herself.

Like everything else, Judaism is something Raine refuses to do half-way. When she reads the Torah and boasts of finding an Orthodox boyfriend, her mother derisively says "we are not Jews, "implying that a culture and a past can't be chosen at will. But if Raine's choices seem whimsical at first, she gains a reader's sympathy by sticking to them with a stubbornness that ends up getting her banished from her brownstone Garden of Eden.

If Raine is a golden child obsessed with evil, Al Klepatar is the opposite. After a childhood spent in boardinghouses with an alcoholic mother, he has found security in a dream of life where his beautiful wife Frieda is his savior and he her knight. Fearful of change and dismissive of Frieda's desire for a child, he wakes one day to find she's decamped with a younger man in search of her reproductive destiny. Toward the end of the novel, Raine notes "reality's always been a problem" for both of them.

The prose of St. Ursula's Girls is as lush as Raine's garden, and it has hints of the poetic style of her namesake, Rainer Maria Rilke. Hurley's descriptions often take the form of long series of nouns that flood our senses. The narrative voice is never far from Raine's own.

While Raine's personality gives the novel its distinctive tone, she does strain plausibility at times. Her insights can be extremely perspicacious for an 18-year-old -- perhaps too much so -- and her fixation on nuclear weapons smacks more of a Cold War sensibility than of a teenager in 1998. (Admittedly, St. Ursula's Girls Against Global Warming doesn't have the same comic ring to it.)

But Hurley compels us to believe in her characters by making the ongoing dialogue between Al and Raine fresh, candid, snappy and profound. Savvy readers will guess what happens. What they won't see is how it happens, as Hurley manages to take a plot beloved by Hollywood screenwriters -- the idealist transforms the cynic -- and make it, just for once, true to life. At its heart, the novel is as sad as it is joyful: a meditation on the fear we escape through dreams and the strength we gain there to confront our lives anew.