I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Boarding School? ✔
ELITE & SECRETIVE boarding school? ✔
Elite and secretive boarding school housed in an OLD CASTLE? ✔
In an ISOLATED old castle in SCOTLAND? ✔
Gorgeous cover? ✔
Gothic thriller? ✔
I pretty much had all I needed from that point and dove in headfirst once I received word that I had been approved.
Caldonbrae Hall is an elite boarding school for girls, nestled on the coast of Scotland. Those lucky enough to be admitted are being prepared to 'serve society'. Yet what we think of when we hear that phrase is not at all what is actually intended. The synopsis does mention that that book is Stepford-y and that's true, so I don't consider that a spoiler. Basically the girls are being groomed to be perfect wives for the nation's elite. Those who don't quite turn out the way they are 'supposed' to end up on Pathway C, or worse. Anything else I say about this most certainly WILL be a spoiler, so I have to stop there.
Anyway, the story follows Rose Christie, a Classics teacher in her mid-twenties who somehow finds herself the head of the Classics department, despite being the newest and youngest teacher at the school. Like, she is literally hired to be the head of the department. Definitely the first sign that something is amiss underneath that shiny veneer. She is also the first new teacher hired in over ten years, and coupled with statements made by both students and staff about Rose "not knowing anything YET" (my emphasis), it is clear that Caldonbrae is not all it claims to be.
There are many vague references by staff and students about the goings-on and what they're doing, but none of it adds up to Rose, nor does it add up to the reader. On top of that, there is the mysterious departure of Jane, the woman Rose was hired to replace. The synopsis refers to her as "a woman whose ghost lingers everywhere" but I have to say, I quite disagree with that assessment. Rose does spend time trying to figure out what happened, and how one student, Bethany, fits into it all, but she goes about it in a terribly stupid and clumsy way, and in reality Jane doesn't matter all that much to the story once the loose end with Bethany are tied up.
Rose does not have much choice but to go on teaching, imparting knowledge on her young students - most of whom don't care and tell her that it does not matter. Naturally this makes Rose upset and she does her best to get through to the girls on why so many of these historical women are important. Bonus points because the author included my girl Boudicca. I especially appreciate the author's inclusion of what Rose was teaching the girls about each of these women, ranging from Medea to Dido to Medusa and so many others. The older girls especially make life tough in class for Rose, and there are constant mentions asking Rose if she is one of those feminists, etc. Those comments occur often enough that it is easier to piece together after a while the true purpose of the school - not just a great academic education.
Despite being the main character, Rose was so annoying at times. She is trying to find out what happened to her predecessor, and sends off all these letters - did she not think for one second that the school might be monitoring said letters? She already knew something strange was going on, that there were things she didn't know. And off she goes, shining a big spotlight on herself by digging around and not being at all subtle about it. Not only did she do this once, but multiple times. Even after she knew the administration was watching her carefully, she continued to do really stupid things at the stupidest times, no matter what good intentions she might have had for the students themselves. It was baffling.
One thing I especially loved about the story was that the author chose to set it in the 90s. No fear then of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. It added to the suspense because no matter how Rose tried to seek out information about the whispered stories of a student death, or anything else, her resources were limited. It would be very hard to find this believable if it had been set in the present day.
This is not a fast-paced novel, so you will be disappointed if that is what you are looking for. The build-up is half the fun of this one, the mind games being played and the things going on that make Rose question everything.
In the end, Rose does not save the girls as she hoped she could. Instead, the ending is so much better than that.