By Emily Layden
The central figure in Emily Layden’s debut novel is Atwater, not a person but a place: an all-girls boarding school in northwest Connecticut. An institution steeped in tradition and prestige, it’s the kind of school where the rich and powerful send their daughters. The academic standards are high, the campus is beautiful — and the administration is dealing with a sexual assault lawsuit from an alumna who was raped by a teacher 20 years ago.
We learn this in the opening pages of “All Girls,” when yard signs reading “A Rapist Works Here” appear around town on Atwater’s move-in day, strategically placed so families driving to the school are guaranteed to be confronted with the allegation. The signs are quickly taken down and the school does its best damage control, but the local paper runs a story. The truth, or some version of it, gets out.
It feels like the setup of a thriller, but rather than delve into institutional drama, “All Girls” looks to the periphery of the scandal: to current Atwater students who experience the fallout of the rape allegation as a backdrop to their academic year. With each chapter focusing on a different girl, readers navigate Fall Fest, vespers, prom, a breakup, a sexual assault, the chance meeting of an estranged friend.
Nine narrators is a lot and names can be hard to remember, but the pages turn fast and the girls are complex, compelling and written with incredible tenderness. Layden excels at rendering the everyday details of boarding school life — a dorm hallway littered with plugged-in hair straighteners and makeup bags, girls groggy at Saturday breakfast dressed in sweats and socks, the LOL-laden group texts of gossip. The girls deal with their own problems, anxieties over school, relationships and the future, but hovering over every individual experience are unifying questions of the scandal. Is the alumna telling the truth? Which teacher is the rapist? Did Atwater really try to cover it up?
Layden is generous with her characters as they try to understand the implications of the ongoing crisis. Some sneer at Atwater’s “corporate jargon,” others blame the victim and defend the school. Some recognize the wrongdoing, but don’t know how to address it. The student paper puts together a special issue focused on the rape allegation, only to have the administration ax it. Instances of activism continue in the wake of the yard signs, but messaging is unclear. The headmistress commends the work of the frustrated newspaper editors even as she silences them. A dorm parent suggests to her freshmen charges the accuser might be lying, then expresses concern for any girl who might feel triggered.
“All Girls” is about teenage girls, but it’s also a portrait of an institution recalibrating itself, trying to figure out how to retain power.
The novel reaches for nuance, though for some readers the situation may be too straightforward for ambiguity: A teacher raped a student and the school covered it up. Atwater’s mealy-mouthed statements get tiresome as it becomes clear there will be no real accountability and around the halfway mark, I began to yearn for a character willing to burn it all down. But even so, I appreciated why this wouldn’t happen. The majority of Layden’s characters come from privilege and wealth, some groomed from birth to attend this boarding school, and even non-legacy students describe Atwater with a devotion that borders on obsession. One girl notes, “This school sinks into your veins.” Another describes it as a place students “never really leave.” These girls are trapped.
“All Girls” takes place during the 2015-16 academic year, which places the narrative pre-#MeToo. The movement’s absence is felt — not just in Atwater’s infuriating lack of transparency, but also in the girls’ ambivalence and confusion. I can’t help wondering how much more clearly these characters might have seen Atwater’s manipulations if the novel were set a couple of years later. Without understanding how your school’s abuse of power mirrors countless other cases, how can you recognize the pattern? How do you begin to understand how you’ve been betrayed?