THE ST. AMBROSE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS rating: three stars ⭐⭐⭐.
(To be released by Gallery/Simon & Schuster, July 11, 2023).
This could have been any one of three great, or at any rate very good, novels:
1. a psychological thriller, which gets progressively creepier and creepier, which is how the publisher is pitching it right down to the scary cover. This is not that book.
2. a literary bildungsroman about a genius student struggling with her mental illness while coming of age in a boarding school with rich mean girls. In this iteration, the novel would center on the cruel pranks played on the main character and her responses to them, particularly her detailed thought processes, even while she eats in the cafeteria and does laundry.
3. a mystery, in which a young detective tries to solve a crime while wondering whether, given her mental illness, she was actually hallucinating some of the evidence that she thinks she remembers. In this iteration, we could leave out the whole middle 3/4 of the book easily.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Edelweiss Plus/Above the Treeline and Simon & Schuster for sending this book to me for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
Instead, the novel starts out strong and propulsive with a compelling narrative voice in main character Sarah, but then bogs down through at least ten chapters of stream-of-consciousness introspection, and then picks up the pace again for a surprise mystery with some “twists and turns.”
Twists and turns, while sometimes enjoyable, are not everything.
Sarah is an excellent character. J.R. Ward, writing as Jessica Ward outside of her usual paranormal fiction ouevre, has the talent to write any of these books with Sarah as first person narrator. It’s that Ward tried to write all three novels at once that is my beef with this novel. Or perhaps the publisher tried to shoehorn what Ward was attempting into something that would fit a marketing plan?
I enjoy the boarding school or boarding house full of women as a setting. Undoubtedly this is down to A LITTLE PRINCESS (1905) by Frances Hodgson Burnett, with the travails of Sara Crewe capturing my young imagination. Harriet Vane, who is Lord Peter Wimsey’s girlfriend and later, wife, attended the all-girls Shrewsbury College, Oxford, which is the setting for the wonderful Dorothy L. Sayers mystery GAUDY NIGHT (1935). Another British classic that I recommend: THE GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS (1963) by Muriel Spark, in which young women live under deprivation at the May of Teck Club under postwar rationing, where a pair of nylons (tights or pantyhose in American English) might as well be made of gold thread, it is so precious and rare.
I’ll continue to look for more books along these lines, particularly of the gothic horror variety. The potential for angst in a residence full of young girls and/or women is limitless. The drama! The clothes! The competition for male attention, or the lesbian romances, or both! The in-groups and out-groups! I love it all, and it’s all stuffed into this novel, but the book needed some direction and better pacing.
What I’m reading right now:
THE WEAVER AND THE WITCH QUEEN by Genevieve Gornichec (Penguin Random House, July 25, 2023).
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