Author’s prose elegant but avoids risk

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August 20, 2013

The Eliot Girls
By Krista Bridge
Douglas and McIntyre, 336 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Jenny Boychuk

There are books you pick up and, after reading a few chapters, they begin to feel achingly familiar.

Krista Bridge has created the fictional-based-on-fact George Eliot Academy, an all-girls private school in Toronto. The school sits regally atop a hill, surrounded by iron gates; the wood floors are always polished, the soft orange glow of hanging lights reflecting off of them. The walls are lined with historic and influential women leaders. Ruth Brindle has taught in the Junior School since Eliot was founded by its strict, feminist principal, Larissa McAllister. Ruth dreamed of the day her daughter, Audrey, would be accepted into Eliot; but, after many tries at the entrance exams, it isn’t until Audrey is about to begin Grade 10 that she is finally admitted.

Ruth delights in seeing Audrey in her uniform for the first time, but Audrey is not so excitable—she is shy and uncertain of this image her mother has wished for her.

“Now, she required something more than imagination to help her effect this transfiguration, and here in the dimness, it was easier to impose on her image a quality that was not otherwise there.  The sensation was romantic, a fleeting escape, and she lingered before the mirror, letting her gaze drift in and out. Then she glanced down and remembered herself.”

As the story progresses, we learn that the integrity and morals Eliot was built upon act as mere scaffolding, and what the school holds inside is much more sinister and dark than Audrey could have imagined. It does not take long for a particular clique of pretty, mean girls to manipulate Audrey into doing their dirty work—though this still doesn’t make her accepted, it still doesn’t protect her from peer-pressure and bullying. It only buys her a little more time to be left alone in the shadow of her well-liked, beautiful mother.

“Female cattiness was a knowledge into which women were born, like the formation of language, the thousands of words saturating infant brains, lodging there with growing meaning until they are ready to emerge, allusive and unquestioning labels on an already known world. The surprise lay in how much it thrilled her, how its heat enfolded her: the unifying sensation of scorn, the closeness of it almost indistinguishable from love. Even more intimate, perhaps, than love.”

Ruth’s integrity is also tested by the handsome and intelligent Henry Winter, Eliot’s new English teacher. She finds herself questioning her marriage, and what exactly it is she had wanted in a life.

“She knew how it was supposed to go. You think of the fact that you shouldn’t be doing this. You think of what can go wrong. You think of the minutes, the seconds that remain for you to change your mind.”

In the end, both Audrey and Ruth are given the chance to own up to their mistakes. One will; one will not.

Bridge is successful in fleshing out the politics of private schools and rendering the image of the teenage girl trying to fit in. It is an accurate comment on the real-life issues our society is facing with bullying, how backwards teenage logic is: it doesn’t matter if you’re talented, if you’re friendly, if you’re pretty—no one is safe. The novel explores what it means to fit in and how we stretch ourselves to fit the lives we think we ought to have, how mothers mold their children into the people they think they ought to be, and how they try to mold themselves from the ideals of their own mothers.

Bridge’s sentences are elegant and well strung, as though each description is trimmed with fine lace—almost acting as a mask to the ugly occurrences within the school. The third person point of view is effective in acting as a study, an examination as it switches between Ruth and Audrey, and the transitions are seamless.

I wish Bridge had taken more risks with the book. It is a story we’ve seen before, many times, and there is potential for it to be something other than the well-known story of teenage acceptance. So the reader must look past the beauty, past the smiling teenage girls who spend their lunch hours rating their classmates’ looks out of ten on small scraps of paper—for even the prose is keeping up appearances.

Jenny Boychuk is an avid reader and recent BFA graduate. 

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