All Girls by Emily Layden
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: February 16, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Sometimes a book’s title is all you need to know about the book. This is clearly the case in Emily Layden’s debut novel, All Girls. Set at the Atwater School, a prestigious girls’ boarding school in New England, the novel has a provocative beginning. As girls and their families drive to the school for the start of fall semester they see hundreds of yard signs along the way proclaiming “A RAPIST WORKS HERE”. The resulting parental concerns and student gossip are the novel’s undercurrent as it flows through one school year.
This could be the lead-in to some kind of psychological drama or mystery. Or, at the very least, a strident pursuit of justice. Layden doesn’t ignore the latter, but gives All Girls a more intimate focus—the girls themselves. Not just as they navigate the news that the school is being sued by a former student, but as they’re faced with the ever-changing realities of growing up. They may be privileged, but they’re still trying to find their way amongst shifting gender, beauty, and sexual dynamics and it takes its toll.
All Girls is broken into the key events that define the Atwater calendar: Initiation, Ringing, Vespers, Prom, and Senior Prank. As arcane and even silly as they might sound to outsiders, each provides an opening into a girl and emotion that is likely to feel familiar. There is a freshman whose anxiety over what happens during Initiation is enough to send her anxiety into overdrive. Another whose family doesn’t come from money. Girls of all kinds, just trying to fit in. Even those who seem self-assured, who are out and seemingly open about their lives, have their own secrets and dynamics. Surface perfection often hides imperceptible fault lines, any of which can fatally crack with enough pressure.
The novel takes place during one school year with very little back story, creating a short story feel. Nine girls linking to each other from chapter to chapter. This, plus the fact there is no big, dramatic conclusion, gives All Girls a potent immediacy. Much like real high school, there is only what happens that year, in that place.
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*I received a free copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.*