The Divines by Ellie Eaton
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: January 19, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Every year there it seems a different theme emerges in fiction. Last year it was twins (The Grammarians, The Vanishing Half, Thin Girls), but this year, although it’s only January, I have three novels in my winter reading that are about girls’ boarding schools. What is it about that subject that entices those of us who were no more likely to attend one than go into outer space? Whatever dark psychological well holds the answer is plumbed in the novel The Divines. The first clue comes in the present-day opening pages, when the narrator, Josephine, shares
I haven’t spoken to a Divine in fourteen years, maybe more, despite there being ample online opportunities these days to reconnect with my former peers should I so wish. I don’t.
Aah. So, this isn’t going to be a wistful stroll down memory lane. It would seem the girls at St. John the Divine’s were a be a bit more divisive. Or maybe a bit more real. Either way, Josephine is the guide.
When the novel opens Josephine goes by Sephine, having dropped the name Joe as a final remnant of her years at St. John’s. All the girls at school went by male names—another clannish way to differentiate themselves from the locals. She’s now a newlywed, married to Jürgen, a kind, boisterous, decent man whom she loves, but with whom she’s shared nothing of her past. On their honeymoon she has a sudden urge to visit the town where the school used to be. It’s this side trip in her adult life that propels her back into her teen years. From that point onward, we’re pulled between the quiet accomplished writer that is Sephine and the awkward, confused teenager that is Joe.
The Divines are what the girls call themselves, but a less apt nickname is hard to imagine. The school is an elite one in England, but its students revel in being the worst at everything. Athletic ability, sportsmanship, academics, manners, compassion are of no interest. They only area where they excel is in a fierce loyalty to each other, but even that is bent to their own rules in that one of the people they despise and bully most is another student. A student who Josephine inexplicably gets paired with as her roommate. It is this new year and situation that foments all the events that follow in The Divines. Events that lead, in part, to the school being shut down.
In The Divines Ellie Eaton creates a cast that is almost uniformly dislikable, which is no small feat. Even the girl who comes in for the most abuse from the other girls is a dreadful person. All of this might lead you to believe I’m not recommending the novel, but that’s not the case. Without a single character to root for comes a welcome detachment, giving the novel an anthropological feel and, more startling, an unsettling pull of recognition. As Joe worries over a ‘feeling’ she has about her best friend it sounds familiar—who didn’t spend hours wondering if other girls still liked them? Or worry about being different?
Eaton enhances this emotional stew by introducing the issue of memory. Sephine recounts her years as a Divine with a crisp finality. There’s no wavering in her recollections, but they don’t always jibe with some of Joe’s moments or the truth of others. One of these misalignments is the crux to the novel, leading to questions about Sephine’s reliability as a narrator. It’s Eaton’s careful probing into the psyche, not just of teens, but of women in general that kept me reading The Divines. Also, an ending that made me grimly laugh out loud.
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*I received a free copy of this book from William Morrow in exchange for an honest review.*