New Girl by Paige Harbison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
New Girl is a great read - gothic-y, teeming with tension and brimming with brooding atmosphere. It's got great characters, too, including a pack of creepy mean-girls that ensure that our poor MC can never let her guard down. It's written in a beautiful spare but luminous style - kind of like Hitchcock's black and white version of Rebecca, the novel on which this is loosely based. That style cinematically captures the novel's setting, the exclusive Manderley Academy, on the isolated New Hampshire coast, which is so much a part of the book that it's almost a character itself. When our MC, the titular New Girl, transfers to Manderley for her senior year (she doesn't have the heart to tell her excited parents no), the last thing she expects is for her room to be a shrine to its mysteriously vanished previous occupant, the enigmatic and beautiful Becca Normandy. Even more disturbing is the reaction of her roommate Dana, the priestess of said shrine, who makes it clear that the New Girl is not wanted, that she's a just temporary place holder for the anticipated return of Becca, and that she will always fall short of dear departed, but soon to return Becca. The New Girl also soon becomes entangled in the mess of a love triangle Becca left behind, attracted to the emotionally distant but still attractive Max, and fond of Johnny, the livelier friendly guy who is one of the few people at Manderly to show her any kindness. The mystery of Becca's absence, the cruel and harsh treatment of our MC by Becca's former friends, and the puzzling emotional behavior of Max seem to be the main threads of the story, but as it progresses, and we learn more about Becca from the alternating chapters with her POV, we learn that there was much more, and much less, to Rebecca and her relationships with Max, Johnny and Dana than might have appeared.
The mystery of Becca's disappearance is a major thread, but to me it became overshadowed by New Girl's growth in strength, confidence and perseverance. I'd like to say she achieves some sort of HEA, but it's not that simple. In the course of the story, however, she does become a "New Girl," one who thinks for herself, evaluates her assumptions about herself, her friends and the direction of her life in ways she might not have, but for the experience of Manderley and the fallout from Becca's disappearance. Only when she has achieved that kind of strength and level of self acceptance do we finally learn her name. By that point we are at least confident that she will move beyond, and even perhaps build upon, her experience with Manderley and the girl she never met, but who dominated her life for so long.
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