contemporary, literary, review

Review: All Girls by Emily Layden

I had forgotten the pitch for All Girls by the time I came around to reading it, and all I could remember was that it was a thriller set at elite boarding school. That pitch does not describe the book I read, but nevertheless the book was a pleasant surprise.

A keenly perceptive coming-of-age novel, All Girls captures one year at a prestigious New England prep school, as nine young women navigate their ambitions, friendships, and fears against the backdrop of a scandal the administration wants silenced.

But as the months unfold, and the school’s efforts to control the ensuing crisis fall short, these extraordinary girls are forced to discover their voices, and their power. A tender and unflinching portrait of modern adolescence told through the shifting perspectives of an unforgettable cast of female students, All Girls explores what it means to grow up in a place that promises you the world––when the world still isn’t yours for the taking.

Like I said above, I was convinced this was a mystery/thriller novel. I even think Goodreads has it categorised as a thriller. All Girls is more a literary fiction study of how the ripples of a rape accusation from 20 years ago affects the current day students at a boarding school. The incident in the blurb is not the focus of the story and we only really learn about the event through newspaper clippings and emails from staff.

I think this was a good angle to explore. I am not interested in reading a story that uses the character’s pain as a backdrop to make the story seem like it has meaning. I’ve found that to be the case with a lot of literary fiction I’ve read. In this book the students are concerned with the case, and especially how safe they are at a school where an incident like this has happened before.

Over the course of 300+ pages, we meet a series of students who were all great to read from. They each felt realised off the page, we experienced parts of their past or daily life outside of where the plot takes the character. I enjoyed that the characters were each connected to each other through the various points of view. There was a sense of how interconnected the lives of these girls are as they live together and learn together in a small school.

The writing flowed seamlessly through the various points of view. You stay with each character for exactly as long as they are needed for the narrative, so the plot feels like it is progressing quickly as it is propelled by the POV switches. While with the characters we live their life deeply and in detail for as long as we remain with them. The characters were varied and flawed. I thought Layden did a great job of writing the characters so they were believably 17/18 years old.

This not an easy topic to read about. The layers of removal from the incident is also helped by the students disconnection from the victim. The incident happened before they were born. However, the students discover that as the accusation comes to light it stirs up questions and worries they have about their safety and life experiences. I thought Layden did a great job handling a difficult topic.

I gave All Girls four stars. I thought it was a carefully crafted book with a lot of excellent characters, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more releases by Layden.


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