From day one at the St. Ambrose School for Girls, Sarah Taylor knows she's the outsider. Inwardly it's her secret diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but outwardly she's socially awkward with a preference for all-black clothes that instantly makes the sharks start swirling. Mean girl Greta Stanhope has it in for Sarah from the moment they meet, and almost immediately starts playing pranks on her. Sarah knows it's Greta and her minions, but with no solid proof, she decides to keep the bullying to herself. The only ally Sarah has is her roommate, Ellen "Strots" Strotsberry, a cigarette-smoking, straight-talking, field hockey player who doesn't seem to take grief from anyone. But with their friendship mostly on the down-low, and Greta's pranks becoming increasingly vicious, Sarah soon finds herself on the brink of a psychological break. When a caring stranger reports her difficulties to the school, Sarah thinks she's found another friend in Nick Hollis, the handsome residential advisor who more than one girl at the school has fantasied about. He seems to care and they bond over a shared love of literature, but her rosy picture of him is dashed when Sarah becomes aware of scandalous information she wasn't supposed to know. As her world begins to unravel again, a girl is found dead, seemingly murdered in a crime of passion, and as Sarah begins to experience more frequent bipolar blackout episodes, she's no longer sure if she can trust anyone, even herself.
The St. Ambrose School for Girls is written by Jessica Ward, who is otherwise known as J. R. Ward in the paranormal romance world. This is her first foray into YA literature and her first published work that isn't a romance novel. It tells the story of Sarah Taylor a highly intelligent, fifteen-year-old with bipolar disorder who has just been accepted to the St. Ambrose School for Girls. Unlike most of her peers at this elite boarding school who are wealthy and well-connected, Sarah comes from a disadvantaged background and got in on a scholarship. Between her bipolar diagnosis and general social anxiety, she's very much a loner. She does immediately connect on some level with her roommate, Ellen Strotsberry aka "Strots," but it's mainly only in the privacy of their room. Otherwise, Sarah has no friends, and the self-important, mean girls almost immediately begin to bully her. Although she knows who's doing it, she has no proof so chooses not report it, which only leads to an escalation. Between the abuse and running out of her meds, Sarah eventually become suicidal, but she's stopped from following through with it by a caring stranger who reports her condition to the school. After this, she believes she's found an ally in Nick Hollis aka "Hot RA," the residential advisor for the girls on her floor of the dorm and someone who seems sympathetic to her plight. The two connect over a shared love of literature, but their budding friendship and her crush on him is destroyed when she accidentally discovers something scandalous she wasn't supposed to. Then one of the girls at the school is found dead, murdered in what appears to be a crime of passion. Sarah begins trying to piece together what might have happened to figure out who the killer could be, but the more she learns, the less she can trust herself until she worries that she herself might be the culprit.
Sarah's father left when she was young because he couldn't deal with her mental illness. Ever since, it's just been her and her mom with whom she has a dysfunctional relationship. After a couple of suicide attempts and spending some time in a mental hospital, her psychiatrist believes she's stable enough to attend St. Ambrose, the boarding school she got into when her mother submitted an essay Sarah wrote about her mental illness without her consent. Sarah is super-smart, and although she isn't exactly excited about her new school, she's willing to give it her best shot. Her roommate, Strots, seems like a nice enough girl, although she's pretty much the quintessential jock, where Sarah has no athletic ability whatsoever. This means that, although in private she considers Strots to be a friend, the two don't mix around campus, leaving Sarah to her own devices and vulnerable to the bullies, namely Greta Stanhope and her two best friends, Francesca and Stacia. The mean girls keep playing pranks on her, and although frustrated by it all, Sarah has no proof it's them. For the most part, it's all relatively harmless enough, until Greta decides to ratchet things up. During this time, Sarah runs out of her meds and forgets to refill it, so she's also having hallucinations and blackout episodes where she's going off into her own little world, which sometimes makes it hard to discern what's real and what's not. This all leads to her planning another suicide attempt and all the events that follow.
Sarah is an interesting point of view character with the story being told completely from her first-person perspective. There were many aspects of her character I could relate to. Being the smart kid and/or the weird kid is something that's not at all unfamiliar to me, as is being the loner and often bullied. Although I've never experienced anything as severe as Sarah's bipolar episodes, as someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression, I can relate on some level to her mental illness, too. As such, all of these aspects of her characterization rang true to me. In fact, I thought that the author captured well the sometimes manic nature of her disease. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about her, though, is that because of the hallucinations and checking out on life for hours at a time with no memory of what happened during that time, it makes her an unreliable narrator. Sometimes the author makes the reader wonder if what Sarah believes to be true actually is, mainly because Sarah herself often questions it. Most of the time, I was pretty sure of what was real, but because it's coming totally from Sarah, I wasn't one hundred percent certain even after turning the last page. This gives the story a very unusual, almost Gothic feeling that left me off-balance.
Oddly enough, from what I can tell, Amazon doesn't appear to have this book categorized as YA, but since the protagonist is a teenager and it's entirely set at a girls' school, I'm going to assume that teens would likely be interested in reading it. Therefore, this is where I'll evaluate it for potentially objectionable content of which there's quite a bit. There's a considerable amount of cursing, including religious profanities and a number of f-bombs (although not quite as much as is typically seen in this author's adult books). A character frequently smokes. It's revealed that at least two girls at the school are gay, and since the story is set in 1991, the climate for them isn't nearly as accepting. Although there's no explicit sexual content, there is implied sex that's taken place off-screen, as well as some discussion of sex without much in the way of details. We learn that a staff member is having a sexual relationship with a student that is also extramarital in nature. A girl is murdered, although the crime scene isn't described in a great amount of detail, but later a character confesses, narrating what happened. Some girls are implied to have an eating disorder. Sarah's bipolar disorder is a major factor in the story and we see her all over the board psychologically.
However, I think what might be of most concern is the amount of suicidal ideation that's present in the story. At one point, Sarah actually plans out her suicide in a fair amount of detail, and although she's stopped that time, she eventually decides to make another go at it with a slightly different outcome. Another character is clearly about to commit suicide before Sarah stops them, and a third character actually succeeds. If not for that, I'd say that the book is probably acceptable for most mature teen readers, but because of the pervasive nature of the suicidal themes and the heavy feeling that Sarah's mental illness gives the story, I'd have to throw up a big caution flag on this one for teens. It's definitely not for younger kids. Older teens may be able to handle it, but they (and their parents) should make sure they won't be triggered by anything I mentioned (and that would go for adult readers, too) and keep the lines of communication open while reading.
The St. Ambrose School for Girls is a very different type of book than what we normally see from Jessica Ward in her J. R. Ward persona. It's definitely not a romance, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what type of book to categorize it as. There's the murder mystery, but that doesn't occur until pretty far into the story. Up to that point, it's more about Sarah and her trying to adjust to a different school environment, along with how her mental illness affects her. It's a deeply introspective and narrative-heavy book with large swaths of the story simply being told by Sarah. Because it's in her first-person POV and because she's such a loner, the dialogue is somewhat sparse. It covers a lot of her internal monologue about how she feels. There are some actions occurring, like the bullying, but it often feels like it's in the background. If I'm being quite honest, this was a somewhat difficult book to read because of the intense thematic material, and because of that, I read it with a sense of heaviness and perhaps even a little bit of depression throughout. Because of these things, this wasn't the type of book I could say that I "enjoyed," but it was an interesting one for its study of a character with mental illness and one that I was prepared to award four stars to until I reached the final pages. Unfortunately I was left feeling rather disappointed in the ending, mainly because I'm not sure how to feel about the moral ambiguity of it. Yes, the person who was murdered was a horrible person, and yes, the person who got blamed for it was also a horrible person, but does that justify the third person who actually did it getting off? I'm not so sure. I think the author was going for a happy ending of a sort, but I feel like murder would leave a stain on the soul that would be hard to live with. All of that, of course, is assuming that we can trust Sarah's narration of the events, too. A part of me wondered if there was some deeper meaning in the ending that was eluding me. In any case, it bothered me enough to drop another half star, giving this book the unfortunate distinction of being the only Ward book so far that probably won't make it onto my keeper shelf. It was good enough for a single read, but not one that I'd likely revisit.
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