Pearls, twinsets and proper English etiquette. In today’s world, these are probably some of the farthest things from most of our minds. Not so for Betsy Phillimore, the main character in Hester Browne’s “The Finishing Touches,” a novel about an English finishing school and all that goes into being “finished” in today’s world.
“The Finishing Touches” begins with Betsy’s return to the finishing school where she grew up on the occasion of her adopted mother’s memorial service. Though she never actually attended the Academy, she grew up knowing it as nothing less than a flourishing school that all the best young ladies attended. But upon her return, she finds it in shambles – attendance is down, the building itself is in disrepair and the company is on the verge of bankruptcy.
All of this turmoil coincides nicely with Betsy’s dead-end job back in Edinburgh and her newly re-sparked interest in finding her birth mother. Her adopted father, Lord Pelham Phillimore, asks her to fix up the Academy and bring it back to the standards her beloved adoptive mother would have wanted – giving Betsy a chance to find a new career that doesn’t involve managing a shoe shop and allowing her access to information that may help her track down her biological mother.
A novel about revitalizing a British finishing school might sound more than a little dull; however, I was delighted to find this book exactly the opposite. Browne’s writing is so clever and lively that I was pleasantly surprised at every turn. I found myself laughing out loud at the understated British humor and rooting for Betsy and the rest of the quirky and often outrageous cast of characters every step of the way.
Betsy’s mission to bring the Academy back to its glory days is filled with colorful characters and unexpected twists. Browne interweaves a love story that is sweet without hijacking the story line into a simpering romance. Betsy’s encounters with her best friend’s brother (and lifelong crush) and the sensible but lovable accountant of the Academy kept me curious about what the outcome would be, but not to the point that they overshadowed other plotlines.
The very concept of a finishing school seems so foreign that reading about the ins and outs of the Academy and Betsy’s efforts to bring their lessons up to date was an intriguing and entertaining learning process. Any finishing school worth its salt is intended to turn young girls into perfect ladies ready to enter society – and what girl hasn’t dreamed of being a society princess at one point or another?
The problem Betsy faces is figuring out how to educate the Academy’s dwindling (four, to be exact) pupils in subjects of use to them in the ever-evolving London scene. It was this overhauling of the lessons I enjoyed most – in part because I picked up so many useful tips. “The Finishing Touches” is chock-full of helpful hints on everything from how to walk in heels to what to look for in a man judging by his handshake and tipping habits.
Throughout Betsy’s work to bring the Academy back to its former splendor, she is also struggling to find her true identity by searching for the mother who abandoned her on the Academy’s doorstep 27 years prior. Her search for her mother brings her closer to her previously distant adopted father, while enabling her to finally feel a sense of belonging and confidence in herself that she has longed for her entire life.
All in all, “The Finishing Touches” was thoroughly charming. Browne writes with a sharp wit that pinpoints the things you’ve always wanted to know but were never taught (like how to eat sushi properly and the absolute essentials to have in your purse) in a completely entertaining way. Browne had me wanting to jump into the book and enroll in the Academy myself, and I’m sure you will too by the end of the novel.