All Girls by Emily Layden
I’ve mentioned my love of my boarding school before (and if you stick around, you’ll hear a lot more about this, especially when November rolls around), and if you know me in person, you know that when autumn comes, I get incredibly nostalgic for school. My school was amazing, and being there for four years was a truly formative experience. I am certain that I became the best version of myself because of my school.
I deeply miss just about everything–the walk from my dorm to the classroom building; runs around the Lane for sports; my roommate, and hanging out with her (I was so lucky to have an amazing roommate; we lived together for just about three full years, which was usually unheard of at our school.) I miss sitting in the makeshift windowseat we made in our dorm room (which we had for two years), my dresser pushed into the gabled window and lined with pillows and a duvet so we could look down at the courtyard and up the Lane. I miss my classmates and my teachers.
So it’s no surprise that at around this time of the year, I seek out books about boarding schools. I’m very particular. I don’t want books that show boarding schools in a bad light; I don’t want murder mysteries set in school (a few exceptions are made to this, however); I don’t want books that are set at fantasy boarding schools, like a school for spies. No, I just like the standard coming-of-age novel, with good descriptions about the school itself, and its daily life.
I have a handful of favorites I read each year–Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, which was published halfway through my first year at school; The New Girls by Beth Gutcheon; a few books by Carol Ann Goodman–but I always look for more to add to my “favorites” collection. I was so happy to read a description of All Girls before it was published; I bought the Kindle version the day it was released, earlier this year, and also bought the hardcover.
The book is set between 2015 and 2016 and each chapter is told from a different viewpoint. I won’t go into the plotline as it will spoil the book, but the characterization of the girls was so achingly real and spot-on. In between each chapter are supporting documents–for instance, emails from the Head of School to the school community, or an article in a local newspaper.
Something I felt that has been lacking in many boarding school books that I found here was that each girl had such a clear, unique voice. And each girl was so different from each other! Each girl wasn’t just the stereotype you might think of, when you think of a boarding school–rich, pretty, smart, happy–there were so many girls, with so many depths, and so much there to learn about. Each girl felt so real to me. I loved seeing glimpses of the same girls through others’ eyes as well, and building a fuller picture of them. I do wish we could have come back to some of the girls–Lauren Triplett, for instance, who opens the book. What drew me in to begin with was reading the sample chapter, before the book was published, and reading about her experience arriving at school, the confusion and excitement surrounding the joining of what is, in essence, a closed community. I would have been interested, in particular, to see how her relationship with her best friend from home changed, how they both changed after a year at different boarding schools.
As I said, I won’t go into the plot. There is a small mystery, but the book is less about the mystery and more about the students: how they view themselves and their classmates and teachers; how they interact with each other; their thoughts about the school as an institution and as their home.
The last line, this is the longing you feel for a place that’s become a part of you. This is the yearning you carry when you never really leave, sums up my feelings, at least, and the feelings of the students of Atwater.
I would highly recommend All Girls to anyone who loves reading boarding school novels, enjoys characterization, and, like me, suffers from a particularly acute form of nostalgia when the weather cools and the leaves begin to change.
You can buy All Girls at your local bookstore. If you don’t feel comfortable shopping in person, consider ordering from Bookshop.org, which supports small independent bookstores! Hardcover, $25.75; paperback (pre-order, ships February 2022), $16.55; e-book, $14.99; audiobook (via Libro.fm), $31.04.