A surprise encounter prompts a woman to recall her experiences at a parochial school in Gschwandtner’s novel.
In the early 2000s, Susannah Greenwood travels from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, and on her way to her hotel, she runs into Daria McQueen, a former classmate from Foxhall, a co-ed Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. The meeting takes Susannah back to the fall of 1960, when she entered the school as a sophomore. Foxhall offers its students a fresh start from tumultuous home lives, and she quickly falls in with a clique of popular girls—Daria, Jan, Faith, and Brady. She joins the diving team and falls in love with a senior named Wes Ritter and also begins a friendship with another new girl at Foxhall, the academically brilliant but socially awkward Moll Grimes. In addition to classes, Quaker meetings, and dances, Susannah experiences the heavy-handed authority of the stern, unyielding headmistress, Miss Margaret Bleaker, who has high expectations for Foxhall students. The tension resulting from the youthful desire to test boundaries eventually culminates in a dramatic misuse of power with devastating consequences for Moll and Miss Bleaker, leaving Susannah to ponder the cost of protecting a vulnerable friend. Overall, this is a deftly constructed coming-of-age story with well-drawn characters and the narrative momentum of a thriller. Gschwandtner (Carla’s Secret, 2013, etc.) is a gifted storyteller who ably balances the past and present throughout the novel and never puts a foot wrong. Susannah’s keen observations of life at the school and of her mother’s erratic behavior are sharp and perceptive. As the titular “other new girl,” Moll is depicted as bright but painfully shy, offering a sympathetic contrast between Susannah’s and Moll’s experiences. The supporting characters are equally well-developed; Wes, for example, struggles to reconcile his Quaker faith with his reluctance to register as a conscientious objector, and Miss Bleaker’s devotion to her position and the school is shown to be all-consuming.
A potent exploration of youth, innocence, and the abuse of authority.