23 September 2014
“He made his way around the table to where his sister sat, raised his arm to thump her back, then choked, clutched his throat, fell forward, and landed on the floor with a thud that reverberated up the legs of the chairs upon which the seven young ladies sat.
‘Dead, I imagine,’ Dour Elinor observed.”
The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry
When the headmistress of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls, Mrs. Plackett, and her brother, Mr. Godding, drop dead, the seven girls of the school are left in a quandary. If they do the right thing and report it to the police, they will all be sent to their separate homes, each miserable in its own way, and forever splitting up their sisterhood. However, when one of the girls suggests that they bury the two in the back garden and pretend nothing is wrong, the others reluctantly agree. Now they must find a way to pretend everything is normal, while also trying to figure out who actually poisoned the two unpleasant siblings. Set against a wonderful Victorian background, can these seven girls pull together and with their new sisterhood to solve the mystery and stay together?
I absolutely loved this book, and read it in one day. It is already added to my list of favorites, and as soon as I have a physical copy, I am going to start passing it around to my friends. The thing that really struck me was that I cannot think of any book that I have read that was about a group of women (except for manga or comic books). Even better, the women are so diverse that they really show how diverse women can be in personalities and interests, so there is someone for everyone. I think the closest thing I can think of are the St Trinian’s movies and comics, but even in those there is an adult presence (however misguided). These girls are on their own in the restrictive Victorian times. It was such a nice change of pace, as when there is a group, I am used to it being all men or mostly men (at best even numbers).
The one problem I had with the book was in the first chapter where I had trouble figuring out who each girl was, which is not unexpected with seven main characters. However, Berry did a wonderful thing when she gave them all nicknames and used them. Before the first chapter, there are small blurbs about how each girl found herself at the school, and in these she introduces their main traits and nicknames. As my copy was an advanced reader, I could tell that there should have been pictures with these (although they weren’t in mine) and I think that these descriptions and pictures will help readers keep track of the girls. After the first chapter, you really have a feel for each girl, but their nicknames that go with their real names helps. Before I was even half way, I usually knew which girl was speaking just based on what was being said.
So I thought I would take a quick moment to introduce the seven girls. From my best estimate the oldest is roughly 17 or 18 years old, while the youngest is 12.
Smooth Kitty is the ringleader, and the one that the others seem to look to. Her father is a very good businessman and her mother died when she was very young. If her father had paid more attention, he would have noticed that she was very smart and able to think quickly on her feet. It is her idea to bury the two bodies out back and pretend everything is normal.
Disgraceful Mary Jane is the boy crazy flirt of the group (as much as one could be in the Victorian times without completely ruining their reputation). She was sent to the school to try and keep her from eloping with any young man. She uses adoring terms for the other girls, and has a bit of a temper, but genuinely cares for the others, even if she gets distracted by pretty faces. She is useful for distracting the men around them, and will flirt to create diversions.
Stout Alice is stout in both body and spirit. She is a wonderful actress and mimic, and with her body shape, she is the perfect stand in for the dead Mrs. Plackett. When the pressure is on she is able to perform her part, and surprises them all with how many people she is able to fool.
Dull Martha was not blessed with an abundance of smarts, but she is musically gifted and a decent cook. However, she was the one to cook the meal that seems to have killed the headmistress and her brother. She is also prone to blurting things out at rather inopportune moments.
Dear Roberta is tall and slightly clumsy. She cares for the wellbeing of the others, even the dead, and is prone to fainting spells if she is overcome at inappropriate actions (such as burying the dead in the garden without prayers). However, she has moments of brilliance, and in some of the toughest spots, she brings a light to explain what has happened.
Dour Elinor is the equivalent to the modern gothic girl. She is obsessed with death and the science, rituals, and practice surrounding it. While she can say some gloomy things, she is also skilled with art supplies (helping to make over Stout Alice into Mrs. Plackett) and book smart.
Pocked Louise is the youngest at 12, and is occasionally dismissed for this. Her uncle, who is a surgeon, helped her survive a bad case of small pox when she was younger (this is why she has pox marks on her skin), and now she wants to study science and medicine. Unfortunately her parents and most of society do not think science is a proper course of study for a young girl. Thankfully she still has access to many of her uncle’s old journals and books and learns from these. She is the one left in charge of solving the mystery of the poison and even makes her own chemistry lab to figure out the poison used.
There are several girls that I really enjoyed reading about more than the others. My favorite is Pocked Louise as she is the most similar to me, with her fascination on science and mysteries. It is also nice that since she is only 12, she has no interest in romance and is not impressed when the older girls turn slightly silly around boys. After her, Smooth Kitty is my next favorite, and she is probably the closest to a main character. She leads most of the action and is the one the others really rely on. This leadership shows through not only in their scheme but in genuine care for the other girls (like figuring out who Stout Alice fancies and stops the others from teasing her about it), and a responsibility for the adult aspects of their scheme such as finances. Dour Elinor was also fun, since she was so different from the others; I just wish she could have had a little more limelight. Overall, there honestly was no character that I didn’t like. They each had their flaws and their strengths; strengths that helped them solve the mystery.
One of the other things I loved with this book was that the focus was on the friendship between the girls. You can see how they genuinely care about each other. There are some love interests for all the girls that are interested in having one. I loved that each was suited to the girl that liked them, and not traditional perfect men. However, these never really take a major part in the story and the most scandalous it gets is a mentioned kiss on a cheek.
The mystery and plot were other strengths of this book that I was not expecting. I have read a lot of mysteries in my life and I was pleasantly surprised by this one. There are parts that are easy for the reader to figure out, but there are enough twists that it will keep you guessing until everything is revealed. I was expecting to figure things out much earlier, so I loved this.
One thing that can be said for Berry is that she did her research. There are mentions of famous books and cultural references that would have been present at the time of the novel (1890 is when the book is set). I actually stopped reading to check the dates of a couple things to make sure they would have existed, and Berry clearly did her research because they did! While it is set in the Victorian era, and this constrains the actions, it is never so forced that you have to focus on the setting, which I appreciate.
Honestly, I can’t wait to re-read this book already and see everything I missed the first time through. I was smiling so much when I finished the book as I loved the ending. The writing style is fun, and I was already snickering on the first page. There is a great reliance on some gallows humor, with great lines like miss using, “I must go inside now and tend to my late headmistress” and other references to death. Even the girls catch themselves using this and laughing with the reader. There is a lot more I could talk about that I enjoyed in the book, such as the girls plans for their continuing education, and Louise’s thoughts on boys, but this review is long enough, so send questions if you want to know more! I only hope that this is the start of a series or we get books that follow the individual girls after their time at the school! I was able to reach out to Berry, and when I asked about seeing more for the girls she responded with, “I certainly hope there will be more from the girls…stay tuned! 🙂 ” So I have my fingers crossed.
Final Verdict: A wonderful book with a great mystery and a wonderful story of a sisterhood of choice and strong female characters working together!