by Simone St. James
Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .
Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.
When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .
I did not plan on writing another book review yet, partially because I have been lying to myself and claiming that my main reading priority is still Stephen King’s It, and that that behemoth would be my next book review (spoiler alert, I don’t currently want to touch that novel with a ten-foot pole, so it may be a while before that post actually happens). Then The Broken Girls happened, and I wanted to shout about it from the rooftops. So here comes an unexpected post about a book that knocked my socks off.
I didn’t know much about this novel going into it. Having never read anything by St. James previously and judging solely on the cover, title, and synopsis, I expected a young adult-esque ghost story with (hopefully) some suspense. What I got instead was a genuinely frighting novel with a shocking amount of heart. I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish, but between Fiona’s investigative scenes and the terrifying appearances of Mary Hand, I was deeply touched by the friendships and emotions of the young girls of Idlewild in the 1950’s.
The atmosphere of the novel is exceptional. I felt like I was right there beside Fiona on those isolated Vermont roads in late autumn. The descriptive imagery is present but not overwhelming, allowing me to get a real feel for the setting, without bogging down the rapid pace of the novel.
Coming from a seasoned (and admittedly jaded) reader of horror and crime novels, I have to say that the murder investigation and investigative journalism in the modern-day portions were very well done. I couldn’t put the book down in the few days it took me to finish, and even gasped aloud more than once. Fiona’s perspective as the sister of a murder victim lends a level of emotion and investment that I really appreciated as she followed the case. It isn’t often that I am genuinely surprised by twists in a crime novel, but this one got me, and I’m so glad that it did.
I was also completely engaged with the 1950’s plotline. When a novel switches back and forth between time periods or perspectives, I almost always find myself disappointed by one or the other. One plotline takes the lead, and the other is a letdown every time I start a new chapter and see a different time, place, or narrator has taken over. In The Broken Girls, I found myself wishing that I had two full length novels about each plotline. I was glued to the page as Fiona navigated her investigation in modern day, and was fully emotionally wrapped up in the lives of the girls at Idlewild. St. James really brought Katie, Sonia, Cece, and Roberta to life, and their friendship genuine touched my heart. I wanted those girls to get through the nightmare of Idlewild with joined hands more than anything.
My favorite element of the novel ended up being what first drew me to it in the first place–Mary Hand. I am literally always on the hunt for a good ghost story. Unfortunately, in my experience, those are shockingly hard to come by. Maybe I’ve read too many, or seen too many horror movies, or maybe my personal experience with ghosts have numbed me to a good story. Whatever the reason, the ghost story that keeps my attention is a rare find. The Broken Girls is one such novel. I have not had a fictional ghost creep into my head the way Mary did in a long time (with one exception that I plan to write about soon, so keep an eye out if you love a good haunting). I think part of Mary’s power lies in the fact that she is sort of a side-plot. As counterintuitive as it may seem, her position as subplot makes her even more effective. In my personal experience, when a horror comes at you full-on in a movie or novel I can become desensitized to it. St. James’ ghost lurks in the background, like a spirit seen from the corner of your eye. Her atmosphere lends a sense of dread and foreboding to the novel that sinks into your subconscious.
If you’re looking for a seasonal read to wrap up your October, I highly recommend checking out The Broken Girls. St. James has created something very special in novel, and I will probably be talking about it for months, so if you do give it a chance please let me know what you thought!