A teacher's affair with his underage student jolts a group of teenage girls into a new awareness of their own power. Their nascent desires surprise even themselves as they find the practice room where they rehearse with their saxophone teacher is the safe place where they can test out their abilities to attract and manipulate. It seems their every act is a performance, every platform a stage.
But when the local drama school turns the story into their year-end show, the real world and the world of the theater are forced to meet. With the dates of the performances -- the musicians' and the acting students' -- approaching, the dramas, real and staged, begin to resemble each other, until they merge in a climax worthy of both life and art.
Theater, says one of the characters in Catton's shrewd if turgid debut, is a concentrate of life as normal. This idea must be embraced in order to enjoy a novel in which the characters speak and act as if on stage. The girls at the Abbey Grange school are shocked by an affair between a teacher and a student, but Catton aptly observes that they are mostly disappointed by being only peripherally involved in such delicious drama. The girls confide in their saxophone teacher, a puppet-mistress straight out of Notes on a Scandal, who becomes intent on orchestrating a relationship between two of the girls when not delivering monologues on teaching and the psychology of teenage girls. A subplot follows bland first-year drama student Stanley and his increasing involvement with a group of Abbey Grange students focused on staging a play that will also provide a convenient narrative collision point. The novel's real subject is the performance of human life, and in this respect, Catton's choice of adolescent girls and drama students is apt, though the cast is limiting and their revelations repetitive. It's a good piece of writing, but not an especially enjoyable novel.