The Broken Girls
The Broken Girls by Simone St. James:
A Roundtable Discussion
Simone St. James is well-loved by the staff here at AAR, so we have been eagerly anticipating her new book. The Broken Girls is a dual-timeline story centered around a boarding school for the teenaged girls society has turned its back on, and the mysteries that surround those who live there. The story hops back and forth between the 1950s and present day Vermont, so fans of historical fiction definitely have something to look forward to.
In the 1950s, a group of four young women are struggling to survive life at the bleak Idlewild hall. Each longs for love and understanding, but no one has the time or the inclination to grant them that, and so these four lost, troubled souls have banded together in hopes of creating something resembling a family unit. Unfortunately, forces both earthly and supernatural threaten their very existence.
In 2014, journalist Fiona Sheridan is still struggling to come to terms with the murder of her older sister. For the past twenty years, she has tried to content herself with the fact that the responsible party is behind bars, but something has niggled at her, making it all but impossible for her to move on. When she learns that Idlewild Hall, where her sister’s body was found, is being restored by a very wealthy, anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about the school, and maybe lay some of her personal demons to rest along the way. But as Fiona begins to look into the history of the school, long-buried secrets are unearthed, secrets with the power to endanger Fiona and those she loves.
AAR reviewers Shannon, Maggie, Kristen, and Lynn got together to share their thoughts and feelings about this complex novel that blends historical fiction with supernatural intrigue.
SD: I’m a huge fan of books set around boarding schools, especially schools for troubled teenaged girls. So, when I first read the synopsis for The Broken Girls, I knew I had to read it. What originally drew your attention to this novel?
MB: What drew me to the book was the author. I’ve read all of Ms. St. James’ novels and have enjoyed every last one.
KD: I’m fascinated by the ways that society has shoved ‘troublesome’ girls into locked away spaces, but I’m also trying to expand my reading, and books with flashbacks are not usually ones I pick up, so wanted to stretch myself.
LS: I’m a big fan of the author, and I’ve enjoyed all of her books so far. For that reason, I’d already planned to give this one a whirl. However, it had so many elements (creepy and possibly haunted old property, boarding school, dual timeline) that are just like catnip for me.
SD: I haven’t read many of Ms. St. James’ previous novels, so I’m definitely no expert, but The Broken Girls had a very different feel from the few I have read. The most notable difference for me was the lack of a romance. We do see Fiona struggling with the relationship she’s in, but that relationship wasn’t the novel’s primary focus. Personally, I missed the romance angle here. What about you? Did you find this novel different from others you’ve read by this author, and if so, did those differences work for you?
MB: I found the section regarding the girls at the school contained the eloquent, chillingly atmospheric, thrillingly spooky writing I expect in one of this author’s works. Those sections went straight from the page to my imagination, creating a motion picture with rich characterizations, eerie, hair raising moments of genuine fear and completely drew me in. Fiona’s story was of no interest to me and I wasn’t really interested in her romance, which in the end proved to be more an alliance than a relationship.
KD: This is the first by this author for me, so can’t speak to changes from her other works. However, I agree with Maggie that the ‘past’ stuff was completely compelling and the present less so.
LS: I also felt that the portions of the book set in the past were by far the strongest. The 1950s plotline was a little different in tone, but did still have something of the gothic mood found in St. James’ earlier books. The modern plotline, though, read a lot more like a straight-up thriller. Well written, but I had a hard time making myself care about Fiona’s relationship. I think this is largely because as a reader, I never felt like I got a real sense of her boyfriend as a person. I did miss the romance in this book, but I loved the mystery. On the 1950s side, I felt like the author did a good job of showing how trapped the girls at the school were, and even though there wasn’t a central romance, I got sucked into the mystery and the dynamic between the friends.
SD: Let’s talk a bit about the character of Mary Hand. I’m not a big fan of ghosts, so Mary was problematic for me and I didn’t feel she added much to the overall story. Sure, the idea of the school being haunted made it kind of spooky, but I would have been just as happy if Ms. St. James had just focused on the mysteries without adding in the supernatural element. How do all of you feel about Mary?
MB: Here again I had a disconnect between the historical portions and those taking place in modern times. In the historical portions, Mary very much lent ambience to the overall aura of the school, a home for girls discarded by their families through no fault of their own. Mary in many ways reflected that herself, lending to the idea that the location itself was somehow cursed. Two of the scenes which I remember most clearly are where Mary tries to harm CeeCee, and the portion in special detention. Those segments were written with such emotion and clarity that they sent chills down my spine. On the other hand, I found it ridiculous to have Fiona scared of a ghost in modern day America. We have plenty of real monsters here and a ghost would be far from the scariest of them.
KD: Right, so I wasn’t here for Mary at all. Maggie, I see your point that she added to the atmosphere, but she took me out of the story more often than not. I would have been more compelled, I think, by a monster who was alive and directly affecting the girls than a ghost. And in the modern day? Nope. Another reason why I couldn’t really be doing with Fiona and it felt like the book was trying to do too many things.
LS: I agree with Maggie that Mary Hand absolutely fit into the 1950s plotline. Her presence helped underscore what was happening in that school. I thought she was overemphasized in the modern-day plotline, although I don’t agree that it would be ridiculous for Fiona to be scared of her. GIven Fiona’s history with that school, I can see where she would be in an emotional position to be susceptible to believe in Mary Hand. I did like how Fiona was able to bring closure to the Mary Hand story, but in the modern-day plot, a little bit of Mary went a long way.
SD: Speaking about the characters, I sometimes found Fiona difficult to deal with. I could sympathize with her need to uncover the truth about her sister’s death, but I didn’t always agree with the ways she chose to investigate. In some ways, her single-mindedness was admirable, but I also found it frustrating. I wanted her to acknowledge the good things in her own life instead of constantly living in the past. How did Fiona’s character work for you?
MB: Fiona didn’t work for me. She wasn’t looking for closure to her sister’s death; the trial should have provided that. She was looking for details and that felt petty to me. I think I would have felt differently if she had come back to town after having carved out a real life for herself but that’s not what happened. It’s like she froze in place even after they received justice and I found that very frustrating.
KD: Ladies, we are in agreement. Every time we were in present day, I found myself fighting the temptation to skim. I never understood Fiona’s deal and never found a reason to root for her. I wanted her to find the truth of the girls’ lives, but all of the other stuff that came with Fiona was a waste of time.
LS: Fiona didn’t really work for me. I don’t necessarily agree that the trial would have provided the closure she needed; I’ve practiced law long enough to know that that just doesn’t always happen. Trials very often answer the question of “who” but don’t always get to the “why” or the “how” of what happened. And sometimes a person needs those answers to make sense of things. Even so, Fiona’s justification for many of her actions just didn’t ring true and didn’t seem very focused. I did, however, get caught up in her investigation of what happened to the girls at the school.
SD: I love historical novels, and I found the parts of the book set in the 1950’s to be far more compelling than the parts set in the present. Did one timeline work better for you than the other, or did you find yourself equally invested in both?
MB: I felt that in the historical timeline the author did a much better job of creating compelling characters, a scary setting, and a riveting plot line so it was by far my favorite. The contemporary portion felt like just another ho-hum small town police procedural. I would have loved it if that had been cut in half and we would have been given more of what happened to the girls as they grew up, rather than getting that in synopsis form.
KD: YES. I believe the book would have been stronger if had been structured differently. Instead of all the alternating bits, introduce us to Fiona – eliminate half of her drama, but use her as the vehicle to the story – and then spend most of our time with the girls and really let us settle in. Then, wrap up with Fiona – because I did enjoy knowing about the final outcome, but I didn’t need to spend so much time in the present as Fiona built her case.
LS: I’ve said it earlier, but yes, the 1950s plot worked a lot better for me. I enjoyed this book quite a bit and the 1950s plotline just haunted me. However, I do think a structure similar to what Lauren Willig used in the Pink Carnation series would have worked much better. In those books, the reader would often see the modern characters at the beginning and end of the book and check in with them a few times throughout the story. However, the historical plotline took up a lot more of the action. In dual timeline books, there doesn’t have to be a 50-50 split between the two time periods.
SD: So how would you grade the book? Since it didn’t work for me nearly as well as I hoped it would, I’d have to give it a C+. There were things I liked, but the story left me feeling disappointed. What about the rest of you?
MB: My overall grade for the story is a B. I loved the concept, thoroughly enjoyed the 1950s portion of the tale and loved the characters I met in that part of the story. I think if the book had been written solely in that time period it would be an A but the contemporary portions pull it down to a B.
KD: I’m going with a C+, because I was so ugh over the contemporary bits that I would have completely skimmed them if not for this review. The 1950s parts were very good, but oooooooofta with the contemporary stuff.
LS: My reasoning is very similar to Maggie’s but I did dither over my grade a bit. I think I’ll give it a B+ because the 1950s parts of the book did haunt me so.