All Girls by Emily Layden: A review
The "all girls" of the title refers to an all-girls boarding school in northwest Connecticut. The action takes place in the 2015-16 academic year which is chiefly important because it is prior to the #MeToo movement. The main character in the book is the school itself, called Atwater. It is a beautiful campus and the school is steeped in tradition and has high academic standards. It's the kind of a place where the rich and famous send their daughters and it's the kind of place that obsessively guards its unsavory secrets. The unsavory secret it was guarding in 2015-16 was a sexual assault lawsuit from an alumna who was raped by a teacher 20 years before. Apparently, the teacher is still working at the school. Families driving to the school to deliver their daughters on move-in day are greeted by signs along the roads that say "A Rapist Works Here."
The school manages to get the signs removed fairly quickly, but the local newspaper gets the story and publishes an article about it. The genie is out of the bottle. Strangely it seems to me, this does not appear to give any parents second thoughts about the school, or at least they are not a part of this narrative. Their daughters are left to deal with the fallout of the allegations as they experience all the hustle and bustle of boarding school life.
The story of life at the school was confusing and hard to follow for me. That was mostly down to the fact that the narrative is told from the points of view of nine - count 'em, nine! - different girls. There is just too much information here about all the girls and about various school personnel. It's been ten days since I finished reading this book and, honestly, I could not now tell you the name of any of those nine girls or differentiate any of their backstories. They are all just a blur to me. In my opinion, the author (for whom this was her first novel) would have done better to tell the story from the point of view of only one or two of the girls with the others as secondary characters. It certainly would have made the story easier to follow.
Where the author truly excelled was in the depiction of day-to-day life at the boarding school. She believably gives us the relationships that form among these high school girls as they deal with their own problems and anxieties. And always in the background are the questions about the scandal facing the school. Are the complainant's charges true? If so, who is that rapist? Why did the school cover it all up and never deal with it? The various responses of the girls also are rendered believably. Some of them blame the victim or believe she is lying. Others may recognize the wrongdoing but they don't know how to respond to it. Again, it is important to remember that this is pre-#MeToo and these girls are products of their upbringing and basically have no tools to recognize how they are being manipulated and possibly betrayed. Their school's lack of transparency leaves them ambivalent and confused.
I experienced a slow burn of outrage in reading this book. The school's lack of accountability is truly infuriating and the reader wishes for just one character with the courage to stand up and say, "This is wrong!" In fact, the school newspaper, to its credit, does prepare an issue addressing the rape allegation, but, predictably, the school administration will not allow it to be published. The cover-up reigns. If the writer were setting the story in today's world, she would likely write it quite differently. At least one likes to think so.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars