Genre: Mystery, Fiction
Published: St. Martin’s Press (February 16, 2021)
Print length: 320 pages
Major spoilers: No
All Girls follows nine young women as they navigate their ambitions and fears at a prestigious New England prep school, all pitched 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.
You grow to love a place… and then you grow up.
ARC provided by publisher
All Girls by Emily Layden is listed on Google as a mystery, though I struggle to call it even that. Most would expect build-up, suspense, discovery. In this novel, there is little to none. Instead, this book is one shrouded in bureaucracy, almost meta-fictive: syntactically tedious, safe, evasive. While an alumnae’s alleged rape is placed at the center of an all-girls boarding school in 2015 New England, there is never any real sense of danger and so the stakes remain minimal throughout the course of the narrative, even as faculty is swept up in sexual misconduct accusations and the ensuing public scrutiny.
By nature, the 1995 rape disrupts the contemporary culture of Atwater in a very secondhand way, allowing current teenage girls to reevaluate their own sexual language, ideas, and even experiences. As such, the novel spends most of its time contemplating girls growing up too fast, or else girls clambering to keep up with the thrashing tide. The premise is promising without any knowledge of the novel’s execution—though never at any point a mystery, unless readers are interested in the fate of the physical setting itself, rather than its inhabitants.
The question of who’s behind several acts intended to pressure the school into addressing the rape is answered at the very end of the novel, with no lead-in or time to collect clues, culminating in an ultimately unsatisfying and arguably head-scratching conclusion. This is largely the fault of the novel’s set-up.
All Girls opens with Lauren Triplett, a wide-eyed freshman fascinated by signs accusing Atwater of employing a rapist during her drive to campus on move-in day. This is a notably strong entry point into what I assumed would be a harrowing journey, though most of the novel’s strengths end here. Each chapter follows a new girl navigating Atwater, volleying between grades, campus familiarity—or lack thereof—and varying degrees of involvement in the central “mystery” plot. The novel never settles and so readers are left scrambling to understand an ever-shifting narrative trying to capture too many angles at too slow a pace.
Right when I felt like I was getting comfortable in a student’s head, the novel pivoted and tossed a new character (and, by consequence, a new web of relationships) at my feet. In other words, it’s impossible to ever feel comfortable reading All Girls. Less so when the central thread—a former student’s rape—weakens with every chapter. Attempts at capturing stories and lives are cut short by the choppy choice in third-person head-switching, so that very few characters ever have a chance to feel anything more than vapid or allegorical.
It’s true that readers sign up for this when the synopsis calls the novel one “told through the shifting perspectives of an unforgettable cast of female students”—”unforgettable” being the ironic operative word. Still, selecting a few essential students to rotate between as the plot thickens would seem smarter than splitting time between throw-away characters who do little to advance the so-called mystery. The head-shifting becomes particularly egregious in the final chapter, which is divided into fragmented vignettes from six separate seniors, most of whom, for the last 300 or so pages, were so uninvolved in the narrative as to be meaningless to readers after a nonexistent climax.
The effect is less novelistic and more like a short story collection. In fact, I can’t help but think All Girls would have been stronger in this format. As it is, the most interesting and plot-central characters receive the very least—Olivia Anderson, for example, head proctor and liaison to the administration on campus, introduced in chapter one and present throughout the novel, receives only one small perspective-specific vignette at the end.
Which leads me to another issue I took with the novel. I was more often bewildered with the language used in and around students of color than not. Olivia, for example, is one in several victims—and a repeated one, at that—of the novel’s preoccupation with the idea of the token non-white girl or diversity scapegoat. Instead of serving as a commentary on racist education practices, which I’m sure was the purpose of these references, Olivia becomes just that, existing only through the ways she’s consumed by others. She’s never allowed to escape this racial perception. Until the absolute end, this is her fate from even those closest to her, with no narrative remorse. Attempts to—briefly, fleetingly—humanize herself are met with disregard. Olivia is not humanizing herself, but pulling out “a trump card.”
Even as I type this review, I’m struggling to understand whether lines like, “…She can see that a few of the Chinese students are home, the girls whose english never really caught up, despite three years of immersive-language study,” are supposed to reflect the insular perspectives of white boarding school campuses or whether they’re simply unintentionally absurd.
Finally, there is the prose, which is often gratuitously descriptive, particularly where similes are concerned: “The buildings grow like runway models, now: tall and skinny and twisting in the wind,” and, two pages later, “…His red windbreaker billowing behind him like a smallish parachute.” this works to slow down the narrative, while alternately heightening All Girls’ strong sense for aesthetic. You would be hard pressed to find a passage that more needlessly captures the teenage, the obsessive, the grotesque:
“She counts a smattering of blackheads at her chin. She begins by flicking a nail across a small whitehead near her eyebrow, listening to the tiny pop as it bursts. She examines the damage—minimal, none really, just a little red mark where there used to be a mountaintop of pus. Leaning closer to the mirror, she places her forefingers on either side of the tip of her nose and then drags them in opposite directions, stretching the skin, before moving her fingers toward one another again. She watches as strings of discharge sprout from her pores, long and thin and solid enough to stand on end, like tiny bacterial beanstalks.”All Girls
While not the biggest fan of the prose, I have to commend the novel for its ability to really ground itself in its setting. It is superbly fleshed out and the strongest foundation throughout the narrative. Atwater—all its beauty, its twists and turns, its layers of history—are practically movie-rendered. The prose is bolstered in this regard. Moving through the campus feels more than believable; it feels like Layden is transferring a real place to the page. Standout chapters like “Fall Fest” and “Retrospectives” soar as the characters alternately connect and/or disagree with this setting.
The other strong point in the novel is undeniably the digital. The interludes, specifically, that separate each character’s chapter/section, always serve to enhance the narrative and add something new/surprising to our glimpses of life on campus. Likewise, All Girls’ understanding of teenage relationships with technology is impressive—certainly some of the strongest I’ve seen explored. The presence of tumblr and its ties to LGBT identity, in particular, are extremely well-done.
It’s hard to truly summarize how I feel about this book, since the reading experience was so disjointed, but I have to say, mystery excluded, All Girls is a slow, thoughtful rumination about power within the walls of western institutions—and to what ends that power is used—with several glaring problems. Its nature writing is memorable and Atwater leaps off of the page. More than that, though, its work to capture the realities of sex and sexual assault through adolescent eyes—the horrors, the embarrassments, the confusions and retrospective realizations—are impressive. For those with the patience and willpower, this is worth the read, if only for the social commentary it provides on sex.