Review: “The Broken Girls,” Simone St. James

Pros: Fascinating story
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Uncorrected proof provided by publisher for review.

In Simone St. James’s The Broken Girls, the time period switches back and forth between 1950 and 2014, in the small town of Barrons, Vermont. In 1950 we follow four girls who attend the Idlewild boarding school, a place where families dump their unwanted or troubled girls. In 2014 our guide is Fiona, a journalist whose sister was killed and dumped on the abandoned grounds of the closed-down school 20 years ago, and who now finds herself writing a story about the planned renovation of the school. Just to make things even creepier, there’s a rumored ghost, Mary Hand, who haunts the school’s grounds in both time periods. Meanwhile, Fiona’s long-time obsession with her sister’s death–despite the fact that the man responsible is in prison–is driving a wedge between her and her boyfriend, Jamie. After all, it isn’t just that he’s a local cop. His father is the chief of police, and was a part of the investigation. As for Jamie’s family, of course they aren’t thrilled that he’s dating a reporter.

There’s a lot going on here. Fiona’s father, Malcolm, is a famous investigative journalist while Fiona mostly does fluff pieces. One of the girls from 1950 is an orphaned French girl who spent time in a concentration camp and who disappeared (only her friends thought anything serious happened to her–everyone else assumed she ran away). We end up with two mysteries: who killed Sonia in 1950, and was Fiona’s sister Deb really killed by her boyfriend Tim 20 years ago? Just to add to it, what role have the occupants of the town and the members of the police force played in all of this?

I found the mysteries to be fascinating and satisfying. There are subtle clues along the way, and I’m not ashamed to say I missed some of them–that’s indicative of a well-crafted narrative, in my opinion. There should be enough information to make you feel like you’re getting somewhere while keeping the ultimate clues subtle enough to keep you from feeling bored. It’s a tough line to tread.

The story did a good job with the ghost of Mary Hand. There’s definitely something inexplicable going on here, but it isn’t too heavy-handed and neither is it taken too lightly. Ultimately it does seem that there’s a ghost wandering the halls and grounds of Idlewild, but she isn’t overly powerful and doesn’t ride roughshod over the rest of the narrative. She adds the right level of creepiness.

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