Susan Wiggs' novel, The Charm School, is as good a work of romantic fiction as you will find. The author examines questions of who and what is charming, where one learns to be charming, and why one should become so, and along the way deals with classic themes of friendship and love. The Charm School is much more than a blending of My Fair Lady and The Ugly Duckling, though the author does an excellent job using quotes from the fairy tale to establish a tone for each part of the book.
In 1851, Boston is clearly a enjoyable place if you are a member of a prominent family and if you adhere to society's conventions. For a woman, the recipe for success includes masking your intelligence and displaying the beauty and charm which can attract a male, and, ultimately, a mate.
Donning that mask is as uncomfortable for Isadora Dudley Peabody as wearing her corset. She is as awkward, meek, and dowdy as any woman whose physique and demeanor scream "spinster." Isadora's alternative is to make herself invisible at social gatherings and to anticipate a lifetime caring for her parents, while doting on myriad nieces and nephews to be produced by her more beautiful, charming, socially-acceptable siblings.
However, Isadora still longs for parental approval. And she is young enough to secretly carry a torch for Chad Easterbrook, a wealthy, Harvard-educated, friend of her brothers, one of the ""charmed circle." Chad personifies insensitivity. Isadora's thoughts, feelings and dreams are alien to Chad, to her family and their Boston Brahmin friends. She simply does not fit anywhere in their world.
Hoping to please her parents and impress Chad, Isadora seizes an opportunity to become the interpreter on the Swan, a ship bound for Rio. When the young, flamboyant captain refuses to hire her, Isadora convinces the Swan's owner that she can serve as interpreter and as his eyes and ears, promising to write daily, keeping track of the errant captain.
Thus begins the six-month journey that will change her life. Encumbered by the physical trappings of a genteel lady and her emotional baggage, but freed to speak her mind, Isadora finds herself constantly at odds with a resentful Captain Ryan Calhoun.
Ryan Calhoun is a worthy match for Isadora. Raised on a Virginia plantation, given Journey, a slave his own age, as a youth, Ryan is unable to ignore the inhumanity of slavery. He is as out of place in plantation-bound Virginia as Isadora on Beacon Hill. When Ryan heads north to attend Harvard, he frees Journey and vows to help free his wife and children. Ambitious to earn enough money to accomplish that, Ryan leaves Harvard and fast talks his way into becoming a sea captain.
Isadora's plight and flight are plausible due to deft handling of the hero and heroine and to Wiggs' creation of secondary characters who exist in other types of restrictive societies. Journey's wife, Delilah, and others are shackled by the institution of slavery. They, no less than Isadora, are freed emotionally and physically while Wiggs delivers a powerful message with great moral effectiveness.
There is a scene in the book which may disturb some readers. On their last day in Brazil, Ryan uses Isadora's insatiable curiosity to encourage her to smoke a hemp cheroot with him. Isadora is well aware of the effect of the cigar. However, she is na´ve about intimacy and believes her feelings are due solely to the intoxicant. It will take a long journey home and a concerted effort on Ryan's part to convince Isadora of her appeal.
The Charm School is a classic novel which should have broad appeal. Isadora's liberation from the emotional bondage enforced by Puritanical Boston is as dramatic as Delilah's escape from the physical bondage enforced by Virginia slaveholders and insensitive Northerners' enforcing the Fugitive Slave Laws. The Charm School is full of the joy of living, of laughter and tears. In the end, it is the story of two people who discover that life's wonders are lessened by the absence of someone with whom to share them. Joie de vivre is a shared state.