As you can tell from the title, this novel is about an all-girls school.
Or maybe you can’t tell that, but it’s still true. We’re not talking about a working-class Catholic girls’ school from South Boston, but a traditionally preppy upper-class boarding school like… well, if you know what I mean, I don’t have to name them, and if you don’t know what I mean, the names won’t help. Word on the street is that the fictional Atwater School is based on the Emma Willard School, but with the location moved slightly eastward from Troy, NY, to rural western Connecticut. Does that help?
Unlike the author, Emily Layden, I have no experience with all-girls schools, whether preppy or otherwise—obviously not as a student, but also not as a faculty member. This novel is written firmly from the students’ point of view, and Layden is very convincing with that perspective. I believe the setting, I believe the story line, I believe the characters. You might wonder why I didn’t have prior knowledge, considering my experience at Phillips Academy; yes, PA was entirely male at the time, since this was before it merged with Abbot Academy in 1973, but there were a few (highly controlled) joint activities between the two academies, so I should have learned something about a preppy all-girls school. Let’s see—there were drama productions, which I saw but didn’t participate in, and there were a few dances, which I totally ignored, and oh yes there were Sunday chapel services, to which girls were invited—as long as they sat in the back! This was the mid-’60s, and yet nobody noticed, or at least mentioned, the symbolism!
Anyway, with this book we’re not talking about the mid-’60s, we’re talking about the 2010s, half a century later. I referred above to “the students’ point of view,” and that possessive plural is important: as a reader, you get the perspectives of many different students, from freshlings to seniors, from long-established legacy students to recent immigrants (not very many in that group). The student newspaper has issues—no pun intended—that haven’t changed much in 50 years, but otherwise there are a lot of current affairs—no pun intended. The big scandal involves a 20-years-ago relationship between a male teacher and one (or more?) female students, and you get no prizes for guessing its nature. But the current-day lesbian relationship between two students is no issue at all, as this is 21st-century New England. Racism comes up occasionally but generally it’s not dealt with. Disparities in wealth and privilege are given short shrift, just as they were in my day at Andover.
If you know teenage girls today, a lot of Layden’s story will probably speak to you. It’s thoroughly convincing. The writing is clean and transparent, which means either that there was no almost need for a proofreader or that the publisher had an excellent one! I found only two jarring errors, one blatant and one subtle. The blatant one, on page 268, referred to “her Irish descendants” when the author clearly meant “ancestors”; the subtle one came up when a certain conflict involving the student newspaper brought up “First Amendment rights,” showing an abysmal misunderstanding of the First Amendment, though I don’t know whether it’s the author or merely the character who doesn’t pay attention to the first word of “Congress shall make no law…” It was later extended to states and therefore public schools, but never to private schools! Free speech doesn’t mean what most people think it means.
Nevertheless, read the book!