Review: Academy Girls by Nora Carroll

Initial reaction: Hoo-boy, unpopular opinion time. I thought this book was trying way too hard. It’s not really the worst read I’ve come across for the theme (because woman returning to boarding school that she left on bad terms as a student has secrets that come back to haunt her when she’s a teacher – that’s a good theme), but it’s lacking in so much suspense. I felt like I was being force fed pudding that I’m continuously being told is good, but I can’t savor the taste (nor can I actually swallow because it’s being shoved into my mouth too quickly to digest). In this case, the narrative’s telling you there’s some kind of dark secrets and mysterious things afoot, but it’s rarely ever with the conviction or depth needed to give this story weight.

I’m thinking 2 stars, maybe 2.5 if I’m feeling generous, but need a night to meditate on it.

Full review:

Okay, so this is going to be a 2 star review, and even with that, I feel that’s generous because there were many problems with this narrative. For the record, I was really intrigued by the premise, though it’s a familiar theme to me. Namely Carol Goodman’s “The Lake of Dead Languages,” “The Drowning Tree,” and “The Seduction of Water” come to mind. There are other books from other authors I’ve read in a similar coat as well. (Personally speaking, I was hoping for something along the lines of Megan Abbott’s “Dare Me”.) So this could’ve been a hit for me if it’d managed to give me characters that I could care about and a scenario that pulled me in from the get go.

Sadly, none of that was to be. I kept feeling like this entire narrative was disconnected somehow, even force fed for the so called emotional payoff. It keeps telling you there’s a secret in the past of the MC, that there’s some kind of sabotage afoot, but I was never fully convinced of the suspense the entire time I read this narrative.

Nearly 400 pages was far too long to go with suspended disbelief, non-immersive suspense, stilted prose and lacking characters. I was pretty disappointed. I think the only edge I’d give this book was that it did improve as it went on, but a less patient reader probably would DNF this before it really hit the ground running, and I wouldn’t blame them.

Jane Milton is a woman on her last leg. Rough turn of affairs after her husband’s convicted of embezzlement, and she’s a writer who hasn’t really had a job that pays well enough to support her and her son. She returns to the school she left behind. First part of “Academy Girls” has her adjusting to the school of high expectations as she returns to teach (and her lack of any kind of relevant experience is very clear).

But then there’s this one student that tests Jane’s patience – one that seems to know a secret that Jane is increasingly antsy about (but she doesn’t make much mention about what exactly it IS), and supposedly we’re supposed to keep reading on through the long slog of the first part of the book to figure it out.

I’m sorry to say, but the main problem in the first part of the book, besides revisiting characters that are hard to care about because we really don’t know them and they’re constantly force fed to us, is Jane’s narration. Perhaps even Jane herself. She’s just so…plain.

(I’m sorry, I had to say it.)

There’s nothing remarkable about her narration at ALL. She’s passive, she telegraphs information far too much, and I don’t get the sense that she’s truly invested in not only her struggles and desires, but also the suspense of what the student – whom she’s at the mercy of – may know. The middle part of the book revisits Jane’s past and the group of girls she used to be part of and identify with. That part was a little better, but not by much. I still felt like I didn’t really know the characters all that much, and the mystery they set themselves out to solve really never did much to pull me in for intrigue – because of the telegraphing. I wanted it to have more show, more palpable emotions, more immersion. Even the inclusion of the poetry felt like it was just thrown in there for the sake of being…I don’t know, posh? There wasn’t a point to it for most parts.

The irony of the prose in this book is somewhat summed up by a line in the book spoken by Jane herself:

“Of course, the only profession I’d ever had, besides teaching, was writing mystery novels. There seemed to be a plot here—but I simply couldn’t figure it out.”

*throws up hands* You’ve nailed my frustration with this book precisely! I see hints at a plot, but it’s so muddled that it’s hard to get a handle (or care) about its events.

As the book went on, trading between snippet passages, and the drama in the present, I started becoming a little more interested in the events. It felt like the author was trying to write into the story and finally hit a stride but it didn’t come until well into the book, and even then, it still felt like it was at a distance. There are six sections to this story and it alternated between being just barely interesting enough to keep you reading and tedious. I saw the ending coming and thought it to be pretty anti-climactic considering the offense (hint: it involves plagiarism) and results.

I think this book had some sparks for intention, but for execution, it just wasn’t there.

Overall score: 2/5 stars.

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Lake Union Publishing.

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