Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

After suffering at the hands of Life of Pi, I really needed something light, fluffy, and escapist to cheer me up. This was exactly that and more. It was comical, sweet, and just plain interesting. The cover description explains it better than I ever could.

The students of St. Etheldreda’s School of Young Ladies face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home – unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

Burying two corpses in the garden, faking their way through a surprise birthday party, and muddling through the horrors of Victorian housework unsupervised are easy enough. But getting to the bottom of the mysterious goings on at Prickwillow Road is another thing altogether.

Why were Mrs. Placket and her brother carrying antique coins in their pockets? Who was cooing in the garden the night they died? And how can the girls be sure that the killer won’t strike again?

I love boarding school stories. I don’t know why, but a boarding school is one of my favorite settings for a story. The only problem with boarding school stories is quite often it gets into cliques, and popular girls versus average girls. This, thankfully, did not. Add to the boarding school setting, the fact that this is also set in England, 1890, and you have my interest.

It might sound strange at first, seven young ladies hiding the body of their murdered headmistress. But as strange as it is, it’s also kind of sweet in a sad way. The seven girls at the school are truly sisters. They come from a variety of backgrounds and families, but the one thing they have in common is that not one of them has a blood sister, and not one of them is willing to break up their ‘family.’ Instead they agree to do it whatever it takes to stay together. Each girl has a unique personality, her own strengths and weaknesses, and fills a particular role in their merry band. And even the knowledge that any one of them could be the murderer does not tear them apart.

The entire story reminded me of the old black-and-white screwball comedies, specifically Arsenic and Old Lace, one of my favorites. The black comedy as the girls try so desperately to conceal the deaths is horrifically hilarious. The tension of their almost being discovered many times kept me on the edge of my seat. And most importantly the end was perfect, even though I had it pretty much figured out by that point…pretty much. Not completely. And that’s all I ask for.

At times it was a bit hard to keep track of all the characters, the girls especially. But that became easier as I continued reading. It took me a little while to get caught up in the story, but by the time I was a quarter of the way in I couldn’t put it down. It is completely free of cursing, and though one of the girls is a bit of a flirt and all the girls have young men they admire, there is no true innuendo and the romance is very understated. The most offensive thing in the entire story is that the next-door farmer’s name is Butts – something that could cause younger children to snicker. And the reason the girls are called ‘scandalous’ is not because of any matter of vice or virtue, but because they know if they are caught there will be a terrible scandal.

After reading the book, I came across a ‘book trailer,’ a phenomenon I’m still not used to, but enjoy most the time. I have to say, I like this trailer, and I feel like it gives you a good taste of the plot and characters, and that’s why I’m sharing it, but it’s not totally accurate. The book isn’t so broodingly dark as the trailer comes across. Actually the book is surprisingly light and uplifting. It feels more like The Mysterious Benedict Society or the movie “Nanny McPhee,” while the trailer feels more like a John Bellairs horror story or The Series of Unfortunate Events.

It’s probably too much to ask, but I would very much like to see a sequel to this story. It was left open enough that it could definitely happen, if not with these girls, with a new generation – perhaps their daughters? If it could be as much of a page-turner as this one, I’m totally on board.

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