Celebrated for her tales of the misbehaving horsey upper-middle classes, Jilly Cooper has turned her wicked eye on the education system. Good news for those who want to sink into the hilarity and absurdity of her writing because, although she highlights some serious topics - racism, poverty and class tension - Cooper has definitely not gone all serious on us.
Her main theme is still the relationships between men and women and here she proves teachers, just like her other saucy characters, can be mistresses who drench themselves in perfume and burst into tears at the drop of a hat.
'Wicked!' is the latest installment in the delicious Rutshire Chronicles which kicked off 20 years ago and includes 'Riders', 'Rivals', 'Polo', 'The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous', 'Appassionata', 'Score' and 'Pandora'. I am sure there are few girls who have not been touched with the Rutshire wand and this is a return to form. It's not quite the bonk-buster that is 'Riders' (no sex in 'Wicked!' until p170), but it is just as addictive.
Set in the county of Larkshire, 'Wicked!' tells the tale of two contrasting schools. The famous Bagley Hall is where sons and daughters of rock stars and property developers go and local non-fee-paying school, Larks, teaches the inhabitants of a run-down social housing estate.
Larks has been put on top of the "to be closed down ASAP" list by the authorities due to general chaos, militant teachers who have given up, and dire grades that come out of it. That is until Janna Curtis, a red-headed attractive young headmistress, takes on the task of turning the school around. She has her work cut out for her with pupils like Feral, Monster and Satan who, if not truanting off school, terrorize the teachers all day. Janna is determined that her flock get better chances and puts their shocking behavior down to the zero support they have received from the educational system up until now.
Meanwhile, over at Bagley Hall, the suave, married head Hengist Brett-Taylor, wants to get to know the fiery Janus and suggests that his well-funded school share their facilities with Larks in order to gain tax concessions for himself and plenty of opportunity for fun and frolics with the lovely Janna. Bedlam breaks out whenever the disadvantaged adolescents meet the precious Bagley kids with school trips and shared drama productions providing plenty of opportunities for havoc and mayhem.
Some of the old crowd from her former books, such as the protagonist of 'Riders', Rupert Campbell-Black, and his lovely wife Taggie, make a very welcome return. As always, animals play a big part and 'Wicked's lengthy character list at the start of the book includes a separate guide for pets (Cadbury: a "chocolate Labrador"; Loofah: a "delinquent pony").
The book took Cooper four years to write, involving a lot of research traipsing around schools, talking to teachers and inspectors and even taking lessons herself.
Although it could have been a little tighter with some of the wild plot twists left out, Cooper's witty, vivacious, barmy writing will suck you in to her vortex for a few weeks. She is the cream of the chick-lit crop and sets a high standard for the genre that is very rarely (if ever?) met.
Yes, the book may be beefy but pack it in that suitcase. All those high minded tomes you swore to read may not seem as appealing when you are lazing on the beach. At 848 pages it's a bit of a haul but it is well worth it - a solid dose of low brow, high quality, vintage Cooper is just what a girl needs.