Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a delightful, tongue-in-cheek send-up of every Victorian mystery novel cliche you could possibly think of.  The seven students enrolled at St. Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies are shocked when their cantankerous headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her somewhat disreputable and unpleasant brother, Mr. Godding, keel over at dinner one evening, the victims of some poisoned veal.

The girls jump into action.  Unwilling to be sent back to their various unhappy homes, they decide to hide the suspicious deaths by burying the bodies in the backyard and carrying on as if nothing happened.  Unfortunately, this plan is complicated by the fact that Mrs. Plackett organized a surprise birthday party for Mr. Godding that evening, several unexpected guests pop by for a visit, and of course, there's an unidentified murderer floating around.

Each seemingly insurmountable obstacle is faced and overcome by the determined band of young ladies, using their individual talents and gifts for the good of the group.  Stout Alice impersonates Mrs. Plackett, with the aid of Dour Elinor's deft artistic hand at makeup.  Pocked Louise, scarred by a bout of smallpox as a child, uses her scientific skills to discover what poison was used by the killer.  Disgraceful Mary Jane's flirting abilities are invaluable as a distraction for various and sundry gentlemen.  Each girl plays her part brilliantly in their effort to remain together: "None of us here has a sister at home, have we?...We have our own sisterhood."

Dry wit abounds side by side with slapstick comedy and plenty of situational humor.  The dead headmistress is described a "rigid and upright" - a commentary on both her personality and her state of rigor mortis. A theological student exclaims that "a well-educated clergyman need never let a lack of experience stand in the way of preaching.  Or else, what are all these divinity studies for?"

There's also quite a bit of feminism subversively coursing throughout the book.  Practically all of the main characters are female, and even in a time when women were almost always wholly dependent on their male relatives for their support they found ways to direct their own destiny. "Some women are born for more independence than society offers them," one women posits. "Perhaps all are, but some have not yet learned to recognize it."

Julie Berry is also the author of All the Truth That's in Me, which won the Whitney Award for Best YA General Novel last year.  The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is definitely a departure from that first novel, and indicates a wide-ranging talent and imagination.  I'm interested to see what Berry comes up with next (as well as in any further adventures of the young ladies of Prickwillow Place).

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
by Julie Berry
ISBN: 9781596439566
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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