Blythewood by Carol Goodman
When you walk towards Agnes Scott College off the main drag of Decatur, there’s some graffiti on the sidewalk—it points to Agnes, declaring it “Agnes Scott Convent.” Sometimes, when walking back to school, I would misread it as “Agnes Scott Coven.” Either way, the sentiment was really the same. Women living together, learning strange new things, and, horror of horrors, getting along? (If I had a dime for every time someone asked me how I could possibly manage going to an “all-girls school”…) There clearly must be something supernatural at work to explain that!
Not that we were especially chomping at the bit to dispel that notion, what with our costumed bonfire revels, bell ringing, and sinister black rings to mark our singular sorority. So you couldn’t really make something appeal to me more than a girls’ boarding school run by a secretive, ancient, Artemis-loving order where the students are trained to fight supernatural threats. Well, okay, you could go ahead and place it at the dawn of the twentieth century, set it in New York, and toss in a heaping helping of suffragettes. Luckily, Carol Goodman went that extra mile, giving me the first fictional academy I’ve truly loved since Hogwarts. It’s not perfect—the majority of the order and, thus, the school, are pretty classist and very resistant to change—but you absolutely know why people are fighting to change it, not eradicate it. Swoon.
But Blythewood is more than its eponymous academy. After her erratic mother dies, Avaline Hall, who suffers from hearing bells in her head, goes to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory to support herself. She (but not her beloved suffragette friend Tillie) survives the infamous fire with the help of a mysterious winged man. After a short spell in an asylum (because it’s required for female YA protagonists of a certain setting to make a stop there), she’s rescued by her formidable grandmother, who sends her off to Blythewood Academy to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Avaline is determined to get to the bottom of the mysteries of her own parentage, the winged man, and the shadowy man in the Inverness cape who has been following her.
It speaks to Goldman’s powers of characterization that I practically howled with rage when Tillie died almost immediately after meeting her—a fiery Jewish suffragette agitating for workers’ rights and looking out for the quieter and more timid women in her life? Swoon. But Tillie’s ghost hangs over the proceedings, as Avaline is reminded of her right and left. After a similar set-up was wasted in Soulbound (the protagonist barely thinks of the friend whose death is her supposed motivation), it was touching to see Avaline use the memory of Tillie to steel herself. Avaline herself is a quiet, readerly sort, who understands things through the lens of the myths her mother read to her or her own reading of “scientific romances.” (At one point, she quotes H.G. Wells.) The rest of the cast is just as well-sketched, from the imperious but well-intentioned Dame Beckwith, the headmistress, to Daisy, Tillie’s timid scholarship student roommate who, in her own way, is every inch a Blythewood woman.
All of this makes me wish dearly that Blythewood had been given enough space to breathe. For the first half, the novel is a delightful mix between supernatural mystery and boarding school story, a bit like the first few Harry Potter novels. (The teachers even have endearingly obvious names!) Then, like now, I was just as interested in what goes on in class as I was in the story. This could make it slow for some, but it allowed me to immerse myself in the setting. But around the midpoint—when a winter solstice expedition into the woods goes awry—things start getting rushed and crowded. Blythewood is clearly the first in a series, but the second half feels like Goodman panicked and tried to fit too much into too little time. Delightful moments like Ava and her friends developing a rapport with the librarian get crushed as we race towards a compressed, deviated, and muted climax. The material is wonderful, just poorly executed in the last stretch. Although I will say that the Gilligan cut concerning the Titanic is truly hilarious.
And Blythewood includes a bog standard young adult love triangle, between Ava, her mysterious winged savior, and Nathan, the headmistress’ son. There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned love triangle, but this one feels listless and perfunctory. When Ava tells us that she feels jealous about Nathan, I immediately said, “No you’re not.” It’s quite brutally clear what the endgame is going to be. That can be done well, if the other option gives us different territory to explore—i.e., Bella Swan exploring her human side with Jacob in Twilight. But Ava’s relationship with Nathan doesn’t give us that, so it barely even registers. In any case, I’m much more interested in the love story of Miss Corey and Miss Sharp, two of Ava’s teachers who clearly have something going on in the background. There’s a lot of meaningful poetry being exchanged at the very least.
Overall, I did really love Blythewood—I didn’t know how much I needed Blythewood Academy in my reading diet until now. The first half is just the thing to curl up by the fire by in the fall. It’s a shame that the second half feels so panicked and rushed, but there’s enough potential that I eagerly await the next installment in the planned trilogy.
Bottom line: The first half of Blythewood practically sings—it’s the supernatural mystery at a girls’ boarding school devoted to fighting evil novel you never knew you needed. The second half, unfortunately, is too compressed and panicked to sing like the first half, but the story still pulls you along. Worth a look.
I rented this book from the public library.