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The St. Ambrose School for Girls


The St. Ambrose School for Girls

Jessica Ward, who writes bestselling romances under the pen names Jessica Bird and J.R. Ward, makes her thriller debut with THE ST. AMBROSE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. This dark academia coming-of-age novel is set at an elite --- and deadly --- boarding school and is told through the eyes of its most unusual, and perhaps observant, student.

The year is 1991, and Nirvana is topping the charts, grunge is taking over and parents can still smoke in restaurants next to their kids, which Sarah Taylor’s mom, Theresa, takes great advantage of. A prestige-chaser who finds her ambitions in People magazine and fake von Furstenberg dresses, Theresa (or “Tera,” as she prefers to be called) believes that she finally has found a way into the elite world of the wealthy when she steals Sarah’s essay to apply her to the St. Ambrose School for Girls.

"Sarah’s voice is so striking and vivid that I could have lived in it for hours.... Ward does a tremendous job of not only bringing mental illness to life, but granting a great deal of grace and compassion to her protagonist."

Settled in Greensboro Falls, Massachusetts, the renowned boarding school is a “pearls-and-sweater-set institution of learning,” where Sarah will bump elbows with the daughters of Mercedes-owning, Izod-wearing fathers and their cold, Talbot-clad wives. The 15-year-old, with her all-black wardrobe and poorly dyed black hair, wants none of this. She knows she is nothing like her perfectly coiffed, colt-legged, mostly blonde classmates, and as the literal charity case scholarship kid, she stands out even more.

And that’s all before she meets Greta Stanhope, the queen bee of St. Ambrose, whose beautiful golden hair and perfectly symmetrical face are only the designer curtains around her sharp, keen eyes. The eyes, Sarah knows, of a predator. During their first meeting, Sarah becomes immediately aware of two things: she and Greta will never be friends, and one of them will be dead by the end of the semester.

Sarah’s adjustment to St. Ambrose is full of the usual pitfalls of boarding school: determining the best times to shower, getting used to the ever-perfumed air that results from cohabitating with a dozen girls, and the desperate struggle to make friends in a world totally foreign to her own. And, of course, a bully in gorgeous, calculating Greta. At first, Sarah reads like a particularly intelligent and observant but otherwise “normal” teenager. She is moody and pessimistic, nervous and cautious, desperate and lonely at varying degrees, even after she finds some comfort in her blossoming friendship with her roommate, Ellen “Strots” Strotsberry.

However, Sarah’s obsessive tendencies start to appear when she fixates on her devilishly handsome RA, Nick Hollis; even then, she seems like any other teenage girl with a crush. But she is also hiding something that she knows would set her apart even further: a recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder following a suicide attempt. Sarah takes lithium to manage it and will do anything to hide this from her peers. But she feels that she is a ticking time bomb and that her madness is sure to surface sooner or later. As Greta starts to really target Sarah with bullying and pranks, her paranoia sharpens, and every interaction, observation and development seem infused with heavy, prescient meaning…whether it really is or not.

Nick and Greta may or may not be having an affair. Sarah takes to observing (or what some might call “stalking”) them and their various nighttime endeavors. Either the couple is very discrete, or there really is nothing there, and Sarah oscillates between the two options at electrifying speeds. Only one thing is certain: her arrival at St. Ambrose and the resulting drastic changes in her routines have triggered her mental illness. But is her bipolar disorder to blame for the pranks and secrets she is seeing (or imagining), or is there really something dark and devious going on beneath the pristine surface of St. Ambrose? The answer only becomes clear when a fellow student ends up dead, and a whole new array of questions leap to the forefront of Sarah’s fracturing mind.

THE ST. AMBROSE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS is an electrifying, atmospheric thriller in which mental illness becomes its own character. Coupled with the very real physical threats --- pranks, violence and even murder --- playing out at St. Ambrose, Sarah’s mental state creates an immersive tone that makes this novel feel even more immediate and urgent. While at times the action can linger a bit too long in the protagonist’s head, Sarah’s voice is so striking and vivid that I could have lived in it for hours. Not only will you sympathize with Sarah, who feels that her illness will eventually outrun her, you will delight in her witty observations and slow appreciation for her mother.

That said, I found the decision to cast the book as an adult thriller to be odd. The bulk of the action takes place in and out of a 15-year-old’s view. While the narrative can be quite dark, I would have preferred these elements to be toned down to make the novel more suitable for teens, rather than the other way around. There is no denying how clever Sarah is, but adult readers may grow frustrated with her when she misses obvious conclusions that would not stump a grown-up in the same way.

Nevertheless, Ward does a tremendous job of not only bringing mental illness to life, but granting a great deal of grace and compassion to her protagonist. This beautifully written element, combined with the riveting mystery at the heart of the book, makes THE ST. AMBROSE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS not only a successful first foray into thrillers for this accomplished author, but one of this summer’s standout suspense novels.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 22, 2023

The St. Ambrose School for Girls
by Jessica Ward