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Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. JamesThe Broken Girls by Simone St. James
Published by Berkley Books on November 20, 2018
Pages: 336
Format: Paperback
Goodreads

The "clever and wonderfully chilling" (Fiona Barton) suspense novel from the award-winning author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare, now in trade paperback!
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 local legend says the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming--until one of them mysteriously disappears . . .
Vermont, 2014. Twenty years ago, journalist Fiona Sheridan's elder sister's body was found in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And although her sister's boyfriend was tried and convicted of the murder, Fiona can't stop revisiting the events, unable to shake the feeling 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 renovations links 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 have heard people rave about The Broken Girls for quite some time now. For one reason or another, while it stayed on my radar it never popped its way up onto my bookshelf, or my TBR. But when Simone St. James had a new book release on Book of the Month, I selected it as my choice and then realized maybe I should read something else by her first. I received a copy of The Broken Girls right around that time as a gift, and so this past week after I finished the latest CJ Tudor book I decided to keep the creepy ball rolling and crack the cover on what many have referred to as, and I am paraphrasing here, “a fucking creepy book.”

I mean, they’re not wrong. In a delightful way.

Rating:

Applicable PopSugar 2020 Prompts: A book that passes the Bechdel test, A book with at least a four-star rating on GoodReads, A book with a three-word title, A book by or about a journalist

How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend

We flip-flop between two timelines during The Broken Girls – 2014, and 1950 – but stay in the same place: Barrons, Vermont. Home of Idlewild – a boarding school initially built in the early 1900s for wayward girls (aka girls born out of wedlock, girls with mental illnesses, girls whose families just plain didn’t want them any more). But that boarding school was built on top of land once owned by the Hand family, and one particular member of the Hand family – a young woman named Mary, who the students swear was buried in the Idlewild garden along with her baby – just won’t stay dead and gone.

Mary Hand’s spectre haunts this book – not just the girls attending Idlewild, whose firsthand experiences with the supernatural left a chill running down my spine, but she haunts our 2014 narrator, too. Fiona is a young journalist in her early thirties who has had a hell of a time in life – her sister was murdered at the age of twenty and unceremoniously had her body dumped on the grounds of Idlewild. The young man who was dating her at the time was tried and convicted, but something about the crime still doesn’t sit well with Fiona. Her parents divorced after her sister’s passing, and Fiona has taken after her famous journalist father – there’s always a story. So when Idlewild is purchased by a mysterious older woman and is set to reopen its doors again, Fiona immediately sets to writing an article about this.

Back in 1950, we see a group of four tightly-bonded teenage girls, whose parents have dumped them at Idlewild for various reasons. Katie, Sonia, CeCe and Roberta may not get along well with society or their families, but they love each other. Love isn’t always enough, though, and Mary Hand’s ghost seems to bat at them every chance she gets – she begs to be let in from the cold, she rakes her skeletal fingers across your brain and plays with your worst fears. And when one of their own goes missing, the Idlewild girls don’t just sit idly by – they can’t. They have to do something. And that something has reverberations all the way to 2014, when Fiona is walking the Idlewild grounds and taking photos when the construction crew suddenly stumbles upon something interesting …

The Bottom Line

I’ve definitely read my fair share of thrillers and boarding school books. What The Broken Girls brings to the table that is so different is an effortless management of dual timelines. St. James creates a unique voice for each narrator – and there are 5, between Fiona and the four titular 1950 “broken girls” – that really sticks with you like hot oatmeal on a cold day. The imagery is provocative and chilling – I had my heart in my throat for sections of this story, seeing what Mary Hand would do to and with these young women as her playthings. You really feel the mold and decay of the old boarding school, the oppressive boredom and how abandoned and scary it must have been for these young women, who had so much potential but were stifled because they had PTSD or were orphaned or abandoned, because they were just too smart. Mary Hand is terrifying, not because she’s a woo-woo “gonna get’cha” ghost, but because her powers lie in getting into your mind, figuring our your worst fears, and psychologically manipulating you to your breaking point. We hate her. We love her. She’s the most fun villain I’ve read in a long time.

Fiona’s story gripped me, too. Her PTSD from her sister’s death was very respectfully and appropriately handled, and her relationship with her police officer boyfriend (cops and journalists don’t mix!) was done well. This school’s history meant so much to her, and you find yourself really rooting for Fiona to get to the bottom of this, because you want her to feel better but damn it you also really, really want to know what happened – who Mary Hand really was, why the school shut down so suddenly, where all of these girls got off to. I didn’t see the big twist coming, and I felt satisfied. Plain and simple, I have nothing bad to say: this book was gorgeous.

Overall, The Broken Girls is an ethereal, otherworldly story that transports you back to a time where things were so different, and yet the same – no matter the year, teenage girls will cluster into bunk beds and gossip in the moonlight, and there’s something enchanting about that. Also, I have huge props to give Simone St. James for ending her acknowledgements page as follows – “(and) thank you to every blog or reviewer who has bothered to write about my work. This simply does not happen without you.” I know I’ve been seeing a lot of Twitter discourse lately about how bloggers are the unsung heroes of the book review community, the redheaded stepchildren. Every little author acknowledgement means the world to us, too – so thank you, Simone. This was the Gothic ghost boarding school murder mystery my heart didn’t know it was craving, and it has shot up to my top 5 mystery/thrillers of all time.

“Sonia envied her, the way she could turn her brain off, think about absolutely nothing. It was a trick Sonia herself had never learned. That was what books did – they turned off your thinking for you, put their thoughts in your head so you wouldn’t have your own.”

“It was infuriating how many people got things wrong about you when you were a teenage girl, but as she had learned to do, Katie took her anger and made it into something else.”

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