The Lessons is a perfect coming-of-age novel

By Shelbi Lascelles

Spanning 22 years, John Purcell’s The Lessons, is a bildungsroman looking into the formative years that led to the destruction and rebirth of a young girl, following the basic premise of girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, everything goes downhill from there. And downhill it went. After 16-year-old Daisy and Harry’s passionate love affair, adult intervention both ruins and possibly saves their lives. Jumping between 1961 and 1983, and just about every year in-between, this story is unapologetically raw, teaming with disagreeable characters and an unlikable plot. You’ll find yourself flinching away as you burrow yourself further into your seat, motivated by mild curiosity or outright stubbornness, you cannot help but power through until you are on the last page with many unanswered questions. 

The Lessons is one of those interesting books where it is almost impossible to decide who the main character is. Would it be the girl who only wanted to blossom into a woman, yet was stomped on and beaten down at every turn? Or would it be the woman eluding so much selfishness, grace, and power that every character and reader can’t help but be drawn to her? There is no answer – which leaves the reader in a predicament as every single character can be quite horrible and it’s hard to know who to root for. And maybe that’s the appeal of the book. They are all so incredibly flawed that every reader can find some aspect to relate to. The complexity of character relations is lifelike in the sense that things happened, and not always the right thing or the thing that is expected.  

If there is one thing this book states loud and clear, it’s this: sex is power, and power lays in your sex. The way power and gender themes seem to be at constant battle with one another while simultaneously affirming the other’s status has a drastic impact on how the story plays out. If you looked at the plot with rose coloured glasses and skimmed any plot points that got too deep, you would be able to simply comment that The Lessons is a coming-of-age story that spans 22 years. Yet it doesn’t take much to look deeper and understand that this book is at the very intersection of adolescence and true maturity. Yes, this is a warped version of a coming-of-age story, but it has been told in such a way that it doesn’t read young. Instead, it approaches topics maturely and without hesitation. This can sometimes be jolting to the reader, especially when discussing loss of innocence and true contentment. But while the general themes of this book seem basic enough, the execution uproots the stereotypically ingrained conceptions of the genre and instead lays the seeds of a more mature discussion. 

Stylistically this book is perfectly executed, which is quite the statement. When the plot is as irritating as it is, and yet you somehow still want to keep reading, you must ask the question: why? And the answer is: the way it was written. This book reads like a journal entry; personal and comforting. Nothing is over explained and there is a certain level of trust and authority granted to the reader.  

Every word must be treated as a monument because you never knew if at any moment were going to be propelled forwards or backwards in time – from one sentence to the next, years can pass.  

The book’s story is very full circle, to the point where the ending almost negates the entire story yet wraps it up in such a pretty, red ribbon that the true frustration of the book is questioned. Coming away from this story you need to ask the questions: Did I actually like the characters? Was the plot actually good? Or was it just so well written that I can overlook the disagreeable characters and dislikeable plot and somehow allow Purcell to convince me that this book was in fact good? 

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this book. But the phrase ‘true-neutral’ is probably a good start. 


Shelbi is currently in her second last semester of studying a dual bachelor’s degree of Fine Arts (Creative Writing) and Business (Marketing). She has a passion for mythology and historical texts, and primarily focuses her creative efforts into long-form fiction and fantasy. 


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