Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Final Exam

The Final Exam
by Gitty Daneshvari
Recommended Ages: 12+

The final book of the School of Fear trilogy breaks the pattern of series of books about weird and whimsical schools, by continuing from where the second book ended without breaking until next year. School of Fear's four, I mean five, "contestants in the pageant of life," as the eccentric Mrs. Wellington calls them, have succeeded in luring Abernathy, the wild man of the forest who was once the student Mrs. Wellington couldn't help, back to the school for another try. But overcoming his novercaphobia is going to be tricky, since it's the fear of stepmothers... and, well, Mrs. Wellington is his stepmother. Now an elderly man himself, Abernathy is in a state of arrested development, stuck at the age when the glamorous beauty queen and phobia fixer came between him and his widower father. As the object of his neurosis, and an oddball in her own right, Mrs. W is in no position to help him. But some way must be found to bring Abernathy to forgive her, before a strangely pig-like tabloid journalist publishes a tell-all article that will destroy School of Fear and embarrass everyone connected with it.

Once again, a lot will depend on youthful phobiacs Lulu, Garrison, Madeleine, Theo, and Hyacinth. Even while the stress of the situation makes them irritable and triggers minor and major attacks of their respective problems, they must pull together to survive an expedition to yet another off-the-grid school for kids with special problems - the stupid-risk-taking Contrarians, whose teacher, the one-eyebrowed Bishop Basmati, practices a method of therapy that makes Mrs. Wellington's methods seem totally grounded and reasonable. For while Basmati may be the only person who can bring Abernathy out of his decades-long fugue state, it's up to the School of Fearians to solve the mystery of a missing canary named Toothpaste. If they don't find the smart-beaked bird, Basmati will turn Abernathy against his stepmom again, right in time for an interview with the reporker (ha ha, I just made that up) who has been sniffing at the kids' heels all summer.

As usual, Gitty Daneshvari serves up a goofy and hilarious, yet also insightful and sensitive, interplay of oddball characters who come fully loaded with their own built-in conflicts. Maddie doesn't want to go through life wearing a shower cap, but her fear of bugs (especially spiders) has come back with a vengeance since she smashed a brown and burgundy spider on her own forehead. Garrison wants to be a real surfer dude, but his fear of water almost keeps him from crossing the drawbridge over the Contrarians' moat. Theo's obsession with safety has made him more irritating than ever, and even tough cookie Lulu loses it big-time when her claustrophobia catches up with her. But thanks to their shared fear of failure, and their need for School of Fear to survive this latest threat, the kids rise up to face a challenge that terrifies all of them. So while their adventure is ridiculous (in a fun way), it is also kind of inspiring.

It was nice to discover this complete trilogy on the young adult fiction shelf of my local public library. School-of-magic fans should be just as happy to see it, though it depicts more of a summer-school of unconventional psychotherapy. It is, however, a place just as secretive as Hogwarts, and a place that provides a different kind of escape from the misery of its students' ordinary lives - one that helps them face their ordinary lives with less misery. It also abounds in warm friendship, sharp dialogue, smart humor, and bizarre surprises. I'll be on the lookout for Get Smart-ish, the sequel to this author's equally funny book The League of Unexceptional Children.

No comments: