Friday, November 17, 2017


Title: The Broken Girls
Author: Simone St James
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a book that started slow and awkward. I almost gave it up. Thankfully, I didn't. 

I almost never give up on a book and my patience and determination to keep reading were rewarded with this slow burner that soon picked up pace. 

The Broken Girls turned out to be a thriller and murder mystery that went beyond its genre, growing to be an indictment of the Holocaust and its excesses, a paranormal ghost story, a tale of friendship spanning decades, a tale of justice denied and fought for.

Fiona Sheridan has not been able to get over the loss of her sister Deb, who was strangled and dumped at Idlewild Hall, an old, abandoned girl’s school which has been abandoned since 1979. Deb’s boyfriend, Tim Christopher, was tried and convicted of the crime, but that has not given Fiona closure. She is still haunted by the crime, unable to move on, even as Tim has spent 20 years in maximum security jail. She wonders if Tim killed Deb, or if someone else did.

Fiona gets herself an assignment, writing about the restoration of Idlewild. The new owners are Margaret Eden and her son, Anthony. Her efforts are supported by Jamie Creel, a cop and her boyfriend.

On a tour of the place, with Anthony, Fiona learns that another body has been discovered. The body of a school girl, Sonia Gallipeau, who was killed in 1950, and her body dumped in an old well.

Fiona, already grieving Deb, grieves also for Sonia, the 15-year-old orphan girl whose life had been brutally cut short. She becomes determined to find out who killed Sonia, while also seeking to find out who killed Deb.

But Jamie’s father, Garrett Creel, a former police chief, resents her attempt to revive the case. How far will he go to stymie her efforts. Will Fiona succeed? Will justice be served to Deb and Sonia?

After the Prologue set in November 1950, in which we learn that a young teenage girl is about to die, the story alternates between the 3rd person past tense viewpoint of Fiona in November 2014, and to those of Katie Winthrop, Roberta, CeCe and Sonia Gallipeau in October 1950.

In time, we get to know the four girls, room-mates turned friends, quite closely. We learn of their individual histories, of how they came to be at Idlewild Hall, the boarding school of last resort, where parents stashed their embarrassments, their failures, and their recalcitrant girls. 

Each of them had a strong story which came out well. I was particularly touched by what Sonia had gone through, having lived at Ravensbrück prison as a young child.

Through the twin narratives of Fiona and the Idlewild girls, we are acquainted with Mary Hand, a ghost who haunts the school. A ghost who is brings to life a person’s worst fears. A ghost who terrifies you with your worst horrors. Mary was a strong presence who left her mark on the story.

Initially, I found the writing banal. The devices the employed were old and worn out. For instance, we get Fiona’s description when she looks into her car’s rearview mirror. We find Jamie talking at length, about something that Fiona already knows, but that, she says, she wants him to talk about because it’s more fun to get information from you. How bland is that!

But gradually, it seems as if the author gets more comfortable with the story, and you settle down for the ride. Simone does a great job of creating a mood of suspense and terror. It is in the descriptions and the action sequences that she truly excels.  There is something forbidding, brooding about the descriptions. The landscape of Vermont comes alive, in a way that helps one imagine it.

After the first few chapters, the writing became more intense. The fear that the characters felt, the emotions and feelings they went through became more real to us. I felt a deep sense of compassion for the four friends in 1950, with no family to love them.

I didn’t quite take to Fiona initially. Her dad was more vigorous and alive, compared to her. But gradually I began to like her. Her character underwent a positive change. From being somebody who wrote fluffy lifestyle pieces, she began to want to write a story on Idlewild. 

I also appreciated the fact that even as she grieved for her own sister, she also grieved for Sonia, for the fact that no one had mourned her loss. Fiona’s tendency to not just want to whiz by, but to want to stop and truly see, also appealed to me.

I liked the description of Malcolm: Malcolm Sheridan had never done small talk — he was the kind of man who looked you in the eye on first meeting and said, Do you enjoy what you do? Do you find it fulfilling?  If you had the courage to answer, he’d listen like it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever heard.

Apart from these characters, I also found the four girls to be very strong and well drawn out. Jamie, on the other hand, I didn’t much care for, even though the author went on and on about his muscular arms. His character arc didn’t grow as well as Fiona’s had.

In contrast, even Lionel Charters, who plays a bit role, came out stronger.

The younger man-older woman pairing, 29 to 37, was bold. But the romance, in the initial chapters, was utterly lackluster. It was also a little unreal that Fiona felt absolutely no insecurity about the age gap. But then again, maybe it was because she had freethinking, hippie parents.

Once again this relationship also benefited from the improvement in the writing.

The book gently mocks old-time phrases, like being born on the wrong side of the blanket, as well as the girls' textbook, Latin Grammar for Girls. As Jamie says, “The good old days when apparently Latin was different if you were a girl.” And using the term ‘iron deficiency’ for having one’s period. 

The author makes fun of the outdated notions in a gentle but firm manner. It was not assumed that the housewives of the future needed to know much about science.

But there were some errors and some awkwardness that slipped past that should have been caught.

Early on, Fiona tells Jamie, “It pays to have a nosy journalist on your side,” and that’s funny. Fiona is far from nosy.

The name and surname, Charlotte Kankle, were repeated five times and Cindy Benshaw twice. Surely the author could have called her just Charlotte the second time onwards. On the other hand, we don’t get to know Roberta’s surname until 2014, as part of Fiona’s research. But these were minor errors in the larger scheme of things. 

The cover was beautiful. The intimidating image of Idlewild, as seen through a cracked window pane. 

The book was beautiful, and the women characters and their stories certainly deserve your attention.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I agree on nearly every aspect of this information you have written.  You have great insight on this topic.  Thank you for making this so clear and understandable. kankle are a humorous term referring to the absence of an ankle where it appears the lower leg grows straight into the foot.



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