*I received a digital ARC of this novel from Lake Union Publishing and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review*
Jane Milton has had one hell of a year. She went from being an aspiring novelist and living a life of comfort with her successful husband and teenage son, to having a husband (now ex) in jail for fraud and losing everything. She finds herself returning to her old boarding school to beg for a job that she could never have imagined herself wanting, and, as she is consistently reminded, she is vastly unqualified for. Returning to The Grove Academy and teaching Senior English is her absolute last resort. She has officially hit rock-bottom.
Shortly after returning to The Grove, Jane’s rock-bottom gets, well… rockier. One of her students begins to turn in assignments that Jane swears she recognizes from her years as a student at the school. What’s worse, that same student appears to be writing a novel about HER senior year. A time that Jane has finally started to move beyond and never wants to remember is coming back to haunt her. Academy Girls takes the reader between two time periods; Jane’s time as a student, and Jane’s time as a teacher, to solve a long ago murder that has infiltrated not only Jane’s experience at The Grove, but the very culture of the school.
Like many who own an Amazon Kindle, I first heard about Academy Girls because of an ad that came up on my home screen almost every time I turned the blasted device on. After seeing it some umpteen million times, I finally looked it up and realized that for once, Amazon had given me an ad for something I might actually want to read! It was on my wish list for a week or two when, lo and behold, it showed up on Net Galley. Obviously, I jumped on that like a unicorn jumps on candy mountain, and I’m so glad I did!
From what I’ve seen, a lot of readers of this novel had a comparison to The Secret History by Donna Tartt in mind as they read. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to compare one author’s work to another and not let a book stand on its own, but it happens and I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself. Having said that, I’m actually glad I have yet to read The Secret History, because I was able to see Academy Girls for what it is; simply fantastic.
I loved the characters in this book. While they, in several cases, could have been given a bit more depth, their stories were believable and relatable. It was easy to recognize how each of them played an important role in the overall plot, and I found myself rooting for some and vehemently hating others. Nora Carroll also does a wonderful job of painting a scene. Having never been to Vermont and having spent precious little time in New England as a whole, the descriptions, specifically of the academy landscape in the fall, were simply enchanting. I could smell the sweetness of the apple orchards, feel the moisture of the dew, and see the vibrancy of the color-changing leaves in my mind’s eye as I read. There is something absolutely wonderful to be said for the ability of an author to engage all five of their readers’ senses as they guide them through an escape into the world they have created in their work.
My favorite thing about Academy Girls is something I appreciated purely as a literary enthusiast with distaste for poetry. I read the required poetry in high school and college, and subsequently flopped like a fish in my largely unsuccessful attempts to complete the inevitable analysis. I can name a few poets if prodded, and can recite exactly one poem by Robert Frost (you know…the one from The Outsiders). At the top of my “Please God No” list has always been Emily Dickinson. She’s dark, she’s creepy, and, to me, her poetry never made any sense. These attributes made her work the perfect candidate to serve as the backbone of this novel. Nora Carroll did a fabulous job of integrating Dickinson and her work throughout Academy Girls and using it as a catalyst for the mystery therein. Even better than that, I have, after years of banging my head against the wall, finally begun to understand, appreciate, and actually want to know more about poetry and Emily in particular.
While it wasn’t without flaws, I really enjoyed Academy Girls and would recommend it to just about anybody. Don’t go into reading it expecting it to be like anything else. This novel is its own creepy, dark little monster and if you’re not careful, it will absolutely come out from under the bed and gobble you up!
**Side Note: I noticed on Good Reads that the author rated her own book 3/5 stars… I wonder why?**