Author: Carol Goodman
Length: 489 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
After surviving the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, seventeen-year-old Avaline Hall is rescued from an asylum by her estranged grandmother and sent to the titular Blythewood, a boarding school in upstate New York also attended by Ava’s late mother. There, she discovers secrets that challenge everything she thought she knew—about herself and the world at large—and comes face-to-face with the very real demons that killed her mother and continue to haunt her.
Boarding school stories are a perennial favorite of mine. I have read, upon reflection, an almost nauseating number of novels set at boarding schools—generally in England (as you do) and generally Victorian or Edwardian.
If you put many of those stories in a blender—say, A Little Princess and the Gemma Doyle trilogy, and add a dash of Harry Potter, Vampire Academy, and even Dead Poets Society—the result might be something like Blythewood. There were some very original elements and some very clichéd ones as well. (“Boarding school story clichés” may seem like a strange niche, but they definitely exist.)
For all those clichés, though, this novel quickly endeared itself to me. I enjoyed it immensely. It isn’t great literature—no new ground, literary or otherwise, is broken here—but it is well-written and it felt real. The characters very much belonged in 1911-12, and that came as a welcome surprise given the plethora of anachronistic characters which are present in YA lit as a whole.
Without giving too much away (the initiation ceremony is appropriately spooky), Blythewood is devoted to training young women to combat evil. This training involves archery, various forms of magic, and most peculiarly, bell-ringing. Bells play an integral role throughout the story.
The inspiration for Blythewood seems to have come from—in part—one of my favorite Keats poems, “Ode to a Nightingale,” which Ava reads in one of her classes:
…The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
This concept fairly well-executed and is as original as it can be. While it leaves many questions unanswered (for instance, how can bells fend off evil spirits?), that’s to be expected when the heroine—here, Ava—is also the narrator. The reader is privy to as much information as Ava is. It’s a clever, if often-used, trick on the author’s part.
The atmosphere and locale were perhaps the strongest aspects of the whole story. Sometimes mysterious, sometimes outright unsettling, Carol Goodman chose her setting well. [I could hear echoes of Christopher Lee’s speech from Sleepy Hollow, “There is a town upstate, two days’ journey to the north in the Hudson Highlands…”]
Ava was likeable enough. She was perhaps not the most compelling character—and personifies the rather tired “poor-kid-who-finds-out-they’re-really-rich” trope—but she had enough personality to make her interesting. She struck me as a cross between Gemma Doyle and the heroine from The Sweetest Dark (Blythewood and TSD were published in the same year, otherwise I might say she reminded me too much of that character). Ava endeared herself to me through our mutual love of boarding school tales, if nothing else.
As for the rest of the cast, they were passable. Some, such as the obligatory mean girl, were little more than stock characters. Ava’s best friends and roommates, Helen and Daisy, are somewhat predictable, but they nevertheless have some weight as characters. There is also the rich “bad boy,” Nathan—who is far from terrible—and the love interest, whose most annoying trait is his emo-kid name. Several of the teachers are quite interesting as well.
The plot starts a little sluggish—there’s a good deal of mostly-necessary exposition—but it picks up nicely in the last hundred or hundred and fifty pages. It avoided most of the common YA pitfalls, though there were hints of (sigh) a possible future love triangle. The ending left me craving more.
Some parts felt a bit tongue-in-cheek, and if you’ve read any or all of the stories I mentioned above, you might find yourself hyperaware of just how many things in Blythewood are inspired by or borrowed from them. Considering them individually for this review, I’m a little critical of just how many similarities there are.
Overall, though, all those borrowed elements combined to create a self-contained world that more or less followed the rules it established for itself and that was in turns both magical and creepy. I enjoyed it far more than I expected to and can’t wait to pick up the next installment.
I’m glad I took a chance on Blythewood and would recommend it to anyone interested in fantasy or historical fiction…or who, like me, is just a sucker boarding school stories!
Also posted on Goodreads.