A curvaceous 35-year old blond teacher (born in Edinburgh) and a hunky 15-year-old Air Force brat (raised in the Southern states of America) find each other in a third-rate boarding school in rural England. The love between Orla (teacher) and Elijah (boy) is genuine and the sex is hot. The premise may seem unlikely (not to mention unsavory, ill-advised and illegal) but nevertheless, "Pearlcasting" promises a compelling story, and delivers. The pink and glossy candy treats on its cover presage that within lies a story of sweet intoxication. But this novel is not just a hot read. It is also a carefully observed comedy of manners.
What is it about English boarding schools? Why are they such fertile ground for mordant wit? Listen to the dreary life at Northwold school: "The day began with Morning Service in the Hall. It was a non-descript room lined with dark wood which formed part of the 1930s boarding house, with long windows which wouldn't open, leading to a stuffy, overheated atmosphere. Occasionally one of the boys would faint from a combination of high temperature and boredom."
The humdrum existence of Orla, a mid-career female teacher in this all-male school, downtrodden and patronized, is affectingly brought to life. Orla had aspirations of joining management to make a difference, but has been passed over. Matheson sketches a member of the old boy's network: "He was supposedly named Humphrey Heathcote-Jones but Orla had a suspicion it was an assumed name. The pretension went with everything else about him. Today he was sporting a full tweed suit which he had to get specially made on account of his enormous girth. He was short, balding and wore tiny brown rimmed glasses. He was often to be found wandering around the grounds blowing a hunting horn or mowing down children in his ancient Jaguar."
Matheson's economical sentences are also compassionate: "The boarders were mostly a forlorn little bunch. They stuck closely to each other, huddling together as if a bitter wind was blowing them over."
Yet one of these boarders is Elijah, who may have been forlorn his first day at this strange new school, but has since adapted. He lets his close-cropped hair grow out and becomes a star on the rugby field. He brings much into Orla's life: a mysterious past, a sweet nature, and an enormous amount of trouble. Suffice it to say that Orla, previously headed straight for spinsterhood, takes a sharp left turn and goes on a wild ride. I enjoyed the ride.