One of the best things about working in a library is the regular opportunity to talk about books (and other media) with people. Often, I can provide a recommendation for something else to read or try in those conversations, but it isn’t always a one-way street. Sometimes, patrons put books on my radar that I overlooked, either because the cover or description didn’t grab me, or it’s just outside my usual genre preferences. One of these books was Simone St. James’s The Broken Girls.
As a story with a historical fiction subplot and an intrigued journalist starring in the other main plotline, The Broken Girls wasn’t entirely outside of my reading wheelhouse to begin with. Maybe it was the title with “girls” in it that turned me away, or possibly it was the eerie-looking building on the front cover that made it seem like it could touch up against horror. Either way, I initially slept on this book, but I’m glad I picked it up.
The location is Barrons, Vermont, home to Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for teenage girls whose families just don’t want to deal with them anymore. The historical plotline is set in the 1950s, following a group of roommates and friends, one of whom will disappear without a trace after leaving to visit her relatives. In present-day 2014, Idlewild Hall is going to be restored as a school for girls, and journalist Fiona Sheridan is writing a piece on the old school that haunts her as the scene where her murdered sister’s body was found 20 years prior. Secrets abound, naturally, but a gruesome discovery on the school grounds will blow old cases wide open again.
While I tend to dislike the trend of books referring to female protagonists as “girls,” this title actually refers to teenage girls and not grown women as so many recent thrillers do. The girls of room 3C Clayton Hall—Katie, CeCe, Roberta, and Sonia—are all vibrant and have each other’s backs in the face of uncaring wards. Together they have what I like to refer to as a “girl squad” dynamic, and I usually see it more in young adult fiction, but it’s lovely to see in adult fiction as well. They helped me really root for Fiona’s investigation because I wanted to see what became of them after their traumatic stays at Idlewild Hall. One could also argue that Fiona, who is 37 at the time of the story, is also still a bit of a girl herself, unable to move past the murder of her sister when she was a teenager. I suspect the combination of these teenage characters combined with the fairly low level of explicit content would also give The Broken Girls crossover appeal to teen readers looking for a historical mystery.
I’m not really a mystery or thriller reader, but give me a story with brooding atmosphere (whether it’s an immersive setting or a rich historical one—or both!), and I’ll read almost any genre. And The Broken Girls has atmosphere alright. A mysterious old school would be dramatic setting enough, but the area is haunted by a ghost known as Mary Hand, rumored to be buried on the site, who appears to people and shows them gruesome things they’d rather not remember. Add in some good old-fashioned coverups, and mix well with a clock ticking down to murder for an absorbing combination that kept me turning pages. While I just read it this month, it would be a perfect October sort of read for when the air starts to chill and people are looking for just a taste of paranormal weirdness.
I’m grateful for the recommendation to pick up The Broken Girls. What books have you picked up on recommendation that you wouldn’t have otherwise grabbed? Or what’s a book that you ended up picking up and liking in spite of your first impression?