When I started reading this fictional tale about a prestigious all-girls boarding school in Connecticut, I was quickly transported back to the discomforts and insecurities of my own high school experience. In retrospect, I guess the immediate angst I felt was indicative of how skillfully the author, Emily Layden, evokes the memory of what it’s like to be an adolescent high school girl.
We learn about Atwater (the school) and the central story through the eyes of nine different students. Each one brings a different perspective, and reacts differently, both to the institution and the events that unfold. The girls are in different grades and social classes, and belong to different friend groups. All have their own special adolescent quirks, ambitions, and fears. Layden gives them all personalities and backstories without making them characters that seem cookie-cut from a young adult novel.
The central drama revolves around a scandal that literally appears on the landscape as students arrive with parents for the school year. Someone has posted lawn signs along the route to the school that say “A Rapist Works Here.” The school year starts under this cloud of uncertainty, while the administration tries unsuccessfully to minimize the negative publicity and fallout, and to keep students in the dark.
Layden must have gone to boarding school. She does an amazing job describing the details of day-to-day school life of the current students, and she often embeds the mundane within stories about the grand traditions that are shared by generations of Atwater students. As the story progresses, the allegations on the lawn signs get some explanation. You will enjoy the way Layden reveals the details of the sexual assault case by sharing a progression of letters from the school administration. She inserts this correspondence strategically among the stories of the nine students (some of whom turn out be more reliable narrators than others).
I started the book feeling edgy about re-visiting high school; by the end I was thoroughly enjoying Layden’s bittersweet and well-integrated collection of coming-of-age narratives. Each story thread brings to light the complexities young women now face on the path to self-discovery and self-empowerment.
Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.
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