She Was the Quiet One

Is Odell Academy supposed to be Phillips Exeter Academy? All signs point to that, but there’s no direct evidence. Odell is the site of Michele Campbell’s new novel, She Was the Quiet One, a title that develops new meanings as you continue reading.

After a slow start, the story kept my attention the entire time. When I reached the end — but not until then — I turned to reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and I was disappointed to see so many spoilers. The problem is that it’s hard to talk about this novel at all if you want to avoid giving anything away.  Even the one-paragraph summary on Goodreads gives too much away.

So what can I say here? Let’s come back to my first sentence. Most of the story takes place at the fictional Odell Academy. There are three reasons why I think it’s probably supposed to be Exeter:

  • It is described as a prestigious New Hampshire prep school that considers itself the best in the nation.
  • It has small discussion-based classes following the Harkness Plan.
  • The student body is primarily upper-class.

It reminds me in part of Andover (where I was a student) and in part of Weston (where I was a teacher). There’s a big difference in each case: when I went to Andover it was all male; it went coed a few years after I graduated, a little bit later than Exeter did, and Odell followed the same path as both Exeter and Andover (and lots of other prep schools) by merging with an all-girls school in town. The coed nature of Odell underlies a lot of the plot, so it’s not a minor point. The connection with Weston is the presence of too many privileged kids who have a definite sense of entitlement — not a majority in the case of Weston or in the case of Odell, but the combination of frat-boy and mean-girl attitudes informs this novel and makes a big difference in the end. Any similarities to Brett Kavanaugh are purely coincidental.

The author does a good job of portraying the internal thoughts of two of the main characters as they develop. In particular, there is a pervasive theme of self-deception, of how we can second-guess ourselves into doubting what we see, and believing what we want to believe about other people. I can’t help thinking about the famous quote from Donald Trump, “You going to believe me or your lying eyes?” — no, wait, that was actually the Marx Brothers, wasn’t it? Trump’s line was “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

One of the main characters is a high-school sophomore, and Campbell’s appropriate rendition of her language might inadvertently deceive readers into thinking that She Was the Quiet One is a YA novel. But it definitely isn’t, and not just because of the sex and violence, both of which can be found (to a much smaller extent) in actual YA novels. If you’re the sort of person who needs trigger warnings, maybe you should stay away from this book. Otherwise I highly recommend it.

One thing I would have appreciated would be a sense of Odell Academy as a school. Of course I’m biased as a teacher, not to mention as a former prep-school student, so I’m sure that most readers wouldn’t agree with me — but still. There are only fleeting references to classes and learning; for the most part the school is presented as a social experience, for better or for worse, mostly for worse. That’s not surprising, given the ideas in this novel and the need to move the story forward. Maybe most people think of school primarily as a social experience.

Of course I don’t have an actual photo of Odell Academy, so this one will have to do. It’s certainly the right idea:

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning, Weston