You Need Some 'Schooling'

Your first impressions of Heather McGowan are that she's funny, smart, solitary and, at the moment anyway, sort of freaking out. She wants her first novel, "Schooling," to speak for itself. She declined to pose for a book-jacket photo, and her about-the-author blurb says virtually nothing about the author. Now you've called her in Providence for an interview, a photographer's on the way and McGowan has an endearing case of stage fright. You ask her who she reads, and there's an epic pause: "Oh, God, that's such a dangerous question." You ask her about her hopes for "Schooling." She knows whatever she says will be quoted, and she pauses again, then laughs at herself: "God, I'm just so fearful right now I can't even speak."

That's OK, you can talk for a while. "Schooling" is a moving, challenging, almost bewilderingly beautiful novel about 13-year-old Catrine Evans. Catrine's American, but after her mother dies her father dumps her at an English boarding school. She's lost. Her accent is too flat, her shoes too clunky, her hair too much of a mess. One day she runs off through the woods, winds up in front of the fire at her chemistry teacher's house and begs him to let her sleep awhile. McGowan, 33, writes poetic, stream-of-consciousness prose, so you can hear Catrine's thoughts race as Mr. Gilbert resists ("Is it her leaf caught hair or that she is American why can't he let her be why can't he let her stay") and finally gives in ("It was only a kiss on the cheek but he should have known she wouldn't sleep if he was going to kiss her on the cheek"). Catrine and Gilbert become inseparable friends--and take turns pulling each other toward trouble.

McGowan was born in the States but by 15 had lived in Belgium, France and England. She began "Schooling" while getting a master's at Brown. Because of the Joycean (or is it Virginia Woolfish?) nature of her novel, some agents swore she'd never sell it. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, I have just spent six years doing something that will never be published. No one is interested and I have no career and what the hell am I going to do with my life?' " A couple of suggestions? Worry a little less. Write a lot more.

SchoolingHeather McGowan