The Broken Girls is a combination murder mystery and ghost story. While flawed, it’s an entertaining read and does an admirable job balancing two murders in two time periods with the mysterious visions seen at a 1950s boarding school for “troubled” girls.
In Vermont in 2014, journalist Fiona Sheridan is haunted by the 20-year-old murder of her older sister Deb. Although the killer, Tim Christopher, Deb’s former boyfriend and the son of an important local family, was quickly apprehended and has spent the last 20 years in prison, Fiona can’t stop obsessing. She is frequently drawn to Idlewild Hall, an abandoned boarding school where Deb’s body was found. When she learns that the Hall is being restored, she pitches the restoration as a story idea to her editor at Lively Vermont and begins to investigate. The Hall itself is in such disrepair, it will cost millions of dollars to restore and can never hope to turn a profit. Why would someone want to go to the trouble?
In 1950 at Idlewild Hall, four girls share a room at the boarding school. Katie is the leader of the group, tough and pretty; Roberta, athletic and strong in her own right, was packed off to boarding school after a traumatic event left her with severe mental scars; Cece, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, is kind; Sonia is frail and has the most troubled history of all, having survived a concentration camp. The boarding school, while not filled with mustache-twirling villains, is a product of its time: illegitimacy is scandalous; strong girls are trouble-makers; mental scars equate to weakness. When Sonia has a PTSD-induced fainting spell, a teacher tells her “You need to be tougher. Girls like you. There’s not a thing wrong with you. We feed you good food here.” Also plaguing the residents of Idlewild is a ghostly vision of a girl in a long black skirt and a black veil. Legend has it that Mary Hand and her baby are buried somewhere on the boarding school grounds. The girls all know the rhyme: Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under land . . . / Faster faster. Don’t let her catch you. / She’ll say she wants to be your friend . . . / Do not let her in again! When one of the students disappears, the teachers claim she ran off with a boy. The residents know that something more sinister happened.
I enjoyed the 1950 mystery more than the 2014 counterpart. The young girls and their stories are compelling, and the visions of Mary Hand feel real and terrifying for the residents. The modern day murder, while entangled with Idlewild Hall, depends more on tropes, such as the unbending, journalist-hating, small-town Chief of Police, whose unspoken threats let Fiona know she’s not welcome to dig up ancient history. In this case, it’s actually the former Chief of Police, and he’s also the father of Fiona’s boyfriend Jamie, also a cop. Jamie is another problem for me; he predictably takes his father’s side, which I guess is necessary to create tension in Jamie and Fiona’s relationship. When he does come around to Fiona’s point of view, it’s a familiar refrain, “He’s so fucking powerful. And Barrons is so small. I didn’t realize how bad it was, how deep it was, until I’d been on the force for years. No one questions the chief, or anything he does, because then you’re off the gravy train.” Fiona and Jaime’s relationship doesn’t work well for me, as neither seems to evolve enough over the course of the novel to make it believable.
Flaws aside, this was an enjoyable read, particularly the portions that focus on the girls at the boarding school. I like how the author wove Mary Hand into the modern-day mystery, but that mystery doesn’t quite live up to its 1950 complement. The author does reveal more about Mary Hand’s story as Fiona investigates the history of Idlewild, which is satisfying. If you like mysteries with a supernatural twist, then you will likely enjoy this novel.