Friday, January 17, 2020

Guest Review: Good Girls Lie

Today the Bat Cave is hosting guest reviewer Janet Webb who many of you know from her writing at Heroes & Heartbreakers (RIP), Criminal Element, and as a longtime resident of Romancelandia. Welcome Janet! 

The title Good Girls Lie is a play on words since the girls who attend The Goode School in Marchburg, Virginia are bound by a strict honor code: the stricture against lying is listed first. The school and the town are both fictional although J.T. Ellison is an alumna of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia (class of ’91). Ellison said she has “woven pieces of the school’s legends and tragedies into this story, all put through my own creative lens.”

The first chapter is entitled The Hanging. Ellison paints a horrifying picture—the opposite of how you might imagine a pastoral, purposeful prep school.
The girl’s body dangles from the tall, iron gates guarding the school’s entrance. A closer examination shows the ends of a red silk tie peeking out like a cardinal on a winter branch, forcing her neck into a brutal angle. She wears her graduation robe and multicolored stole as if knowing she’ll never see the achievement. 
The scene quickly shifts back in time to the arrival of Ash Carlisle, a new student from Oxford, England. Dean Westhaven welcomes Ash into her inner sanctum and asks her over a perfectly prepared cup of Oolong tea if she remembers the words of the Honor Pledge. Ash dutifully recites it.
“I will hold myself and my fellow students to the highest standards. I pledge absolute honesty in my work and my personal relationships. I will never take a shortcut to further my own goals. I will not lie, I will not cheat, I will not steal. I will turn myself in if I fail to live up to this obligation, and I will encourage those who break the code in any way to report themselves as well. I believe in trust and kindness, and the integrity of this oath. On my honor.” 
A classic mystery trope is the stranger entering an environment that is rich with long-standing traditions and customs. What is more hide-bound than an elite girls boarding-school? Think of The Official Preppy Handbook: fitting in at a boarding school is all about knowing and following the unspoken rules, be it clothing, manners, or the all-important who you know and where you’re from. Ash is worried “about fitting in with the daughters of the DC elite—daughters of senators and congressmen and ambassadors and reporters and the just plain filthy rich,” but she is “more than” pretty and as for her intelligence, she’s off the charts: “she’s both book smart and street-smart, the rarest of combinations.” Whilst Ash muses about her acceptability in a new environment, Ellison lays down a troubling marker.
Despite her concerns, if she sticks to the story, she will fit in with no issues. The only strike against her, of course, is me, but no one knows about me. No one can ever know about me.
What could this mean? Why does Dean Westhaven have to remind herself to call Ash by the last name Carlisle, instead of Carr? Troubling information like this is meted out in trickles but what really informs Good Girls Lie is the dichotomy between everything the school publicly represents and the actions of the girls behind the gates. The Goode School is known colloquially as a “Silent Ivy,” a sobriquet that plays on the school’s phenomenal acceptance rate at the Ivy Leagues. Of each class of graduates, “a full 90 percent go traditional Ivy.”
It is a laudable record. Goode accepts only the best, guarantees a serious return on investment. And in turn, expects blood, sweat, and tears. And future endowments. Elitism costs. 
“Blood, sweat, and tears.” That’s a rather harsh description of high school, albeit a demanding girls-only prep school but Ash discovers the truth of it early on. Exhausted after dragging a huge suitcase up two flights of stairs, she looks at her information packet to find out the number of her room. It’s 214. A group of girls “point to the left as one, a flock of helpful, smiling little birds.” At the end of the hall, she finds the number written on a piece of paper, taped to a door. It’s a thoroughly gothic introduction to boarding school life.
Steeling myself, I open the door into…darkness. A heady, musty smell, overlaid with bleach. Across the room are two cobwebbed windows covered in smeary, dotted dirt. The floor is draped in tarps; neatly stacked ladders line the far wall, a row of paint cans in front of them. A fluorescent light swings from the ceiling. When I flip the switch, it comes to life with an ominous crackle. 
That’s not all Ash hears—outside the door are “peals of laughter.” Really? “Oh, ha, bloody ha,” she thinks. But isn’t hazing of new students traditional? Or is this an indication of how things are going to be? Ash’s insularity, combined with her British background, make it impossible for her to escape notice. She is quickly targeted by her fellow students, particularly Becca, a member of the senior class. Becca is a natural leader, luminous, intelligent, and brilliant at blowing hot and cold at Ash. Becca and her followers quickly uncover the mystery of Ash’s mysterious background although Ellison deftly inserts clues that indicate that there’s much more to Ash than meets the eye.

The “hanging” marks a shift in the plot, from uncomfortable scenes of bullying and competition to dark secrets and downright terror. A paragraph describing Good Girls Lie takes on a frightening resonance: “In a world where appearances are everything, as long as students pretend to follow the rules, no one questions the cruelties of the secret societies or the dubious behavior of the privileged young women who expect to get away with murder.” Getting away with murder in this venue means more than scamming someone or something and getting off scot free—at The Goode School, murder is brutal and inexplicable. Good Girls Lie is a complicated, absorbing tale that is painted in morally ambiguous shades of grey, not black and white.


Keira Soleore said...

Excellent review, Janet. You depict the descent into the macabre and terror very well.

Wendy said...

I've added it to my audiobook wishlist at work. Sounds great!