An all-girls boarding school in a hilly corner of Connecticut, Atwater is a haven for progressive thinking and feminist intellectuals. The students are smart, driven and worldly; they are also teenagers, learning to find their way. But when they arrive on campus for the start of the Fall term, they’re confronted with startling news: an Atwater alumna has made a troubling allegation of sexual misconduct against an unidentified teacher. As the weeks wear on and the administration’s efforts to manage the ensuing crisis fall short, these extraordinary young women come to realise that the adults in their lives may not be the protectors they previously believed.
Length: 320 pages (hardback)
Publisher: John Murray
Trigger warnings: sexual assault
I’ve ben trying to expand my reading tastes out into contemporary novels over the last year. Picking up All Girls was part of that experiment – an experiment that has been quite successful up until this point.
All Girls is a contemporary novel, and possibly falls under the literary fiction category as well. I’m not sure. Neither am I sure if it’s meant to be an adult book, a new adult book, or a young adult book. This is one of its flaws, though a minor one. Categorisation doesn’t matter at all if a book is a good one. But the lack of identifiable features in this book only adds to its seeming confusion.
Layden tells the novel from lots of different perspectives. We begin the story through Lauren’s eyes. She’s a freshman arriving at Atwater for the first time, so we see the school through the perspective of someone who is new to the place. This is a good way of opening the story, for me, because it’s a good way in to describing the school and learning about the odd traditions etc these schools tend to have.
The next chapter, however, moves onto another character, one which we have just seen through Lauren’s eyes. The book continues like this for the duration of the story. We move from character to character each chapter, never repeating a perspective. So we never get to know how Lauren got on in her first year at this school.
I didn’t like this aspect of the book. I found that just as I was starting to feel for a character, understand them and sympathise with them, Layden was moving us on to the next character and mini story. This made the story feel quite disjointed.
The main story that linked all the smaller stories together is the mystery around which teacher raped the student currently suing the school. Someone is pulling stunts throughout the school year in an attempt to keep attention on the case. This question links all the different perspectives, as students speculate on both the case and the stunts. I think the way Layden wove the main storyline through the different characters’ stories was clever, but I don’t think it was prominent enough to really engage the reader enough throughout the disjointed perspectives.
The biggest thing I appreciated about the book was the diverse range of female voices Layden puts on the page. There are subtle discussions around sexuality and race, which I think deserved a larger portion of the novel. But it was nice to see them there.
All Girls is well-written, and I think the central discussion around sexual assault is important. However, I think this book is unfortunately a case where the force of the message overshadowed the story.