An elderly retired nun, formerly headmistress at an all-girls’ school in the mountains of North Carolina, has taken on an important task. Although nearly blind, Mother Suzanne Ravenal is dictating tapes in order to write a memoir.
She first came to Mount St. Gabriel’s as a student, considering a “vocation.” Her best friend Antonia is also considering becoming a nun, but at the last minute, something happened between the two girls that resulted in Suzanne’s early admission and a rift between the two. Soon Antonia is no longer in the picture.
Subsequently, Antonia marries Henry Vick, an architect, but on their honeymoon, a tragic accident takes her life.
What transpired between the two girls forms the crux of this tale of secrets, betrayals, and future events with students in one fateful year dubbed “the toxic year.”
That year—1951—ninth graders in attendance at the school where Ravenal is now the headmistress have formed alliances. First there is Tildy Stratton, whose mother Cornelia is Antonia’s twin sister; then there is Chloe Varnes, niece of Henry Vick and daughter of now deceased Agnes, who also attended this school. Then comes Maud Norton, whose once-tight friendship with Tildy is now defunct.
All is set up for melodrama, which ensues rather quickly. But it is only at the end of ninth grade that something happens while the girls are performing a play—a traditional play—and everything crumbles.
What secret has set the tone for this “toxic year”? What relationships and alliances have threatened Mother Ravenal so much that she takes drastic steps? And what will be the aftermath of these events?
This rather lengthy tome was intriguing, and at times, I almost gave up on it. But it was fascinating enough that I kept plugging away. The author very skillfully weaves the past and present, but at times, this task seemed unwieldy. And, despite the artful literary nature of this book, I found it tedious, which led to awarding it 4 stars. Perhaps 4.5.