The protagonist, Colleen Rowley, is not any kind of modern Everywoman. Rather, Colleen is in her final year of an elite and highly-competitive Catholic girls school, St. Joan's Academy, outside of Boston, Massachusetts. So the book captures the privileged milieu shared by We Were Liars rather than the more average world of, say, The Spectacular Now. But I think she does a great job of describing what happens when you mix together the creme de la creme in the same pot.
The story begins as students are returning from their Christmas break. As Colleen describes it:
Senior year. Last semester. We were pretty keyed up. I man, everybody's always on edge when the semester starts, kind of, except spring semester senior year is like that normal nervousness times a million. Senior year is when it all comes together, all the years of studying and work and projects and sports and campaigns and whatever we're into that we've been working really hard for--it's either about to pay off or everything is about to completely fall apart.
The downside of attending these kinds of elite secondary institutions is that everyone is expecting to attend similarly-elite colleges. However, no matter how fabulous the high school is--even if, say, Stephen Hawking was teaching the science classes and the Dalai Lama was teaching the religion classes and Bill Gates was teaching the computer science classes and John Green was teaching the literature classes--and how high the students' GPAs and SAT scores are, no college is going to take more than a handful of students from the same high school. So in that last year, you no longer see your classmates as the people you've spend half your life learning with, you seem them as your competition for one of those few coveted spots to Harvard or Yale or Stanford or Duke.
Of course, the students feel like they must play it cool, and not demonstrate their anxiety and their jealousy and their willingness to do whatever it takes to become the MOST desirable student of the crowd. The students are too well-bred to resort to cat fights, name calling, or profanity.
It was rare to see open aggression at St. Joan's. Oh, it's not like we were innocent lambs who sat around holding hands all day. It's just that most of our methods were more subtle. If we wanted to make someone feel how truly insignificant she was, there were ways and ways of doing it. Backhanded compliments on a Facebook feed. A subtweet or two. A stare just a second too long, followed by a tiny roll of the eyes. Whispering, always whispering. These were the methods of discipline and hierarchy employed in the halls of St. Joan's.
Colleen also does a great job explaining how closed and incestuous these schools can feel.
St. Joan's was a small school. Everyone knew everyone else's business. We knew who was diabetic, and whose mom drank too much. We knew who had a gluten allergy, and who just said she did to hide her eating disorder. We knew who cut. We knew about everyone's tattoos, and we thought they should probably have gone into Boston to get them instead, 'cause the lines were already blurry. We knew within the week when one of us lost her virginity. Sometimes we knew within the hour.
And yet, within this codified society where everyone knows everything, a mystery arises. Girls begin experiencing all sorts of unexplained medical problems--losing control of their bodies, losing their hair, losing their ability to walk or talk properly. Panic ensues, and the school becomes a hotspot, filled with television reporters, medical authorities, environmental activists, even religious protestors, all vying to be the ones to explain what is happening to the girls of St. Joan.
At the same time, Colleen is noticing other strange developments in her life. Her favorite teacher disappears without any explanation. She is getting strange texts from an unknown source. Her texting-obsessed friend isn't answering her messages, and her best friend's old money family is being even more reclusive than usual. Colleen eventually realizes that maybe they don't know everyone's business as much as they thought they did.
The heart of the story, however, is when Colleen discovers the parallels between what is happening at St. Joan's and an assignment she is reading for her AP US History class. As her investigation into this mystery takes her deep and deeper into the past, Colleen--along with us readers--comes to wonder whether people from many years ago were actually as different from us as we usually assume they were.
All in all, I thought it was quite a lovely book. If I have one complaint, it is that I don't think most of the supporting characters are fleshed out very much, but are more standard "types" you find in this kind of an environment (the clean-cut boyfriend, the Queen Bee and wannabes, the "rebel" who isn't really very rebellious, etc.). The major "character" outside of Colleen is the school and that community of driven, privileged kids who face their own kinds of challenges.
It is also a great reminder to those of us with high schoolers the kind of pressure our kids can feel these days over getting into these highly-competitive colleges. Personally, while I want my son to strive for his "dream school," I never want him to feel like his life will be ruined if he doesn't get in. I think a lot of students can lose sight of that these days.
Finally, I found it to be a real page-turner. I started it after 9 PM one evening, read late into the night, and woke up early the next morning so I could finish it before I had to "get to work." I was not shocked, but enjoyed, her resolution of the entire situation.
Oh, and for those of you with sharp eyes and a knowledge of my other book reviews--yes, that is a goldfinch on the cover. Who would have thought I would have two favorite books among summer reading where the cover displayed a goldfinch?