I read Simone St. James’s first novel The Haunting of Maddy Clare years ago – it was one of those books I mostly enjoyed, and thought had some flaws. Basically, good enough to check out the author again at some point, especially given that this was a first novel, but not so good that I was going to go out of my way to get another of her novels.
She has written quite a few more novels since that original one, and I was curious to see if I would enjoy her more now, or if she and I simply weren’t a great match, and chose The Broken Girls – parallel time lines, 1950s girls boarding school setting, and a woman with unresolved feelings about a 20 year old murder – how could it not be good?
I can’t exactly remember what didn’t work for me about Maddy Clare – maybe the love story? But whatever, it was, I didn’t have any quibbles with this novel. This is the rare parallel time line story where I am actually interested in both time periods – both the four roommates at Idlewild Hall, and Fiona, a reporter who is still haunted by her sister’s murder and ends up pulled back to Idlewild, the site of her murder, for a story.
Idlewild Hall in the 1950s is a place where people discard their daughters that they simply don’t want to deal with. Friendship and trust are rare in this place, and yet when Roberta, Katie, CeCe and Sophie start to open up to each other, they find a deep friendship between each other. They all have different coping mechanisms and methods to surviving at Idlewild – Katie is the gorgeous, loud and assertive girl; Roberta is serious and studious, CeCe is the kind one and Sonia is a bit of a mystery. As they reveal their back stories to each other, it becomes clear that the reasons their families have shipped them off reflect more negatively on their families than anything the girls have done. They were more or less abandoned for not coping with tragedy quickly or correctly, or being a reminder of a mistake. Miraculously, they find each other in this miserable boarding school – a place that everyone there agrees is haunted by Mary Hand.
Decades later, a rich older woman buys the property and dilapidated buildings to start a new boarding school. Fiona doesn’t understand why anyone would do this between the boarding school’s former reputation and its fame as the site of her sister’s murder. She convinces a local editor that this could be an interesting story, and with that, is able to get an interview with the owner’s son and a tour of the grounds – and is witness when the crew discovers a body. This leads Fiona into an investigation of a 50 year old murder. As she investigates the cold case, she also discovers new facts about her sister’s death that may finally give her the closure she’s been missing.
Naturally, given the parallel structure of this novel, the reader knows more than the characters so part of the fun is watching Fiona connect the dots and figure out the things the reader already knows from spending time with the girls in 1950.
While my TBR pile is already out of control, I have added The Sun Down Motel to it – this was just such a solid example of the ghost story genre, and I look forward to reading more of James when I am in the mood for that kind of story. Sometimes you don’t want a groundbreaking story, but simply a well executed version of a specific type of genre and plot, and that’s what I would say this novel is very successful at – beyond that, she created characters it was easy to sympathize with and care about, going beyond superficial tropes to create fast pace story.