Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review: Keeping Up Appearances by Ann Roberts

Ann Roberts’ ninth novel is set in 2004 in a Phoenix, Arizona middle school and covers one school year. Faye Burton is the principal, and while not dumpy is less concerned with what she wears because experience has taught her it is always possible that one or more of the students she talks to in the course of the school day will end up leaving something of themselves behind on her clothes. While the school year is still young, she meets the District’s new director of special education, Andi Loomis, who wears Prada and Armani. When the women begin dating, Andi insists that they remain deeply in the closet which is fine with Faye because the District has recently hired a homophobic Superintendent.

A thorn in Faye’s side is attorney Constance Richardson, whose son, AJ, is in the school’s special education program. Richardson wants her son mainstreamed, i.e., put into the school’s regular program of classes. The school staff knows the boy isn’t capable of being mainstreamed, and have told Richardson that over and over. Richardson is adamant that AJ remain in the non-special education classrooms despite him being disruptive and increasingly violent. Richardson is vindictive, mean-spirited, and used to getting her own way in all things. Faye must deal not only with each day’s crisis at the school, but the politics of the district as well. When Richardson doesn’t get her way, she gets even with Faye. What Faye and Andi do after that is telling and threatens their relationship.

While there are some romantic elements to this book, it is not, strictly speaking, a romance.This book is about the bullying of gay students, the constant fear gay teachers live under if they are teaching under homophobic administrations, and survival. There are romantic elements, i.e., the budding relationship between Andi and Faye.

Roberts does a good job in developing Faye, Andi, and Constance (who is one of those characters the reader will love to hate). Unfortunately, she fails to develop the secondary adult characters in enough depth to tell one from the other. The only thing distinguishing Faye’s brother from the other secondary characters is the fact that he’s a man - the women characters are so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable from one another. If she had developed the secondary adults, this would have been a fully realized book. Much better developed secondary characters are the students, and, thus, more interesting than the adult secondary characters.

Readers may be chagrinned at the end of the book when both Faye and Constance act out of character. Roberts would have done her readers a favor by foreshadowing the change in both these characters beyond giving us love as the reason they would or could change in such a radical way.

Despite the minor criticisms above, Roberts’ book will keep you turning pages even if you aren’t a teacher or have children, and, if for no other reason than to see what deviousness Constance will be up to next.

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