The Great Canadian Private Girls’ School Novel – if one can imagine such a narrowly conceived genre – is The Wives of Bath by Susan Swan. Set in a fictionalized version of Toronto’s Havergal College, Swan’s book combines feminism with Gothic elements and Freudian psychology in a story about adolescent girls’ burgeoning sexuality and the travails of coming of age in a world dominated by masculine dictates.
Krista Bridge updates the setting and dispenses with the Gothicism, but retains the feminist bedrock in her debut novel, which takes place mostly in the fictional Toronto institution George Eliot Academy, where 15-year-old Audrey Brindle has been granted acceptance after several failed attempts to pass the school entrance exam. Audrey’s mother, Ruth, a teacher at George Eliot, is delighted that her daughter has finally gained admission to the academy, where the walls are lined with portraits of feminist thinkers such as Mary Woolstonecraft, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Betty Friedan.
What Audrey discovers at George Eliot is a treacherous world of academic competition and social warfare. Unable to rise to the challenge of the former (she suffers “nausea-inducing” humiliation by receiving two scores of fifty-eight on her interim report card), she negotiates the latter by tentatively aligning herself with a trio of cliquish girls (Bridge’s version of the Heathers or the Plastics), led by the domineering Arabella, whose current project involves a campaign of harassment directed at Seeta, an insanely talented musician who is also new to the school.
While Audrey attempts to adapt to her environment, her mother undertakes an affair with the new English teacher, Henry Winter, husband of Clayton Quincy, Arabella’s mother. Ruth’s infidelity forms a counterpoint to Audrey’s bullying, both of which are presented as acts of rebellion against stifling societal strictures. Henry’s initial seduction occurs in the aftermath of Ruth being mugged in the school parking lot; his rapid trajectory from comforter to Lothario skirts the edges of making him appear monstrous, but it is to the author’s credit that she shades this scene – and Ruth’s character – with sufficient nuance that we are able to comprehend, if not exactly endorse, the motives at work.
Also impressive is the characterization of Seeta, the bullying victim. Far from being a dove-like innocent, Seeta is arrogant and insufferable, her musical talent and academic achievement lending her a swelled head and inflated sense of self-importance. (She erroneously accuses Audrey of cheating off her in a math test.)
Less effective is the general vagueness of the book’s timeframe. Whereas Swan’s novel was located specifically in the year 1963, it is impossible to tell precisely when The Eliot Girls is meant to take place. References to Lululemon outfits and cellphones abut apparently anachronistic details – Arabella’s knapsack has a button emblazoned with Alan Thicke’s image, and the girls taunt Seeta with a picture of Sissy Spacek from the 1976 Brian de Palma film Carrie. When Henry’s students resort to plagiarism on an English paper, they copy from Coles Notes, not Wikipedia.
Assuming a contemporary setting, it is interesting to note what these well-heeled, privileged adolescent girls don’t do: they don’t spend time talking on their smartphones, they don’t text or e-mail. Their bullying of Seeta consists not of uploading embarrassing videos to Facebook or YouTube, but rather sending anonymous threats made out of cut up newspaper headlines glued on cardboard, a mechanism more suited to 1940s film noir than a contemporary teenage milieu.
It is possible – even likely – that these details were left deliberately nebulous in an attempt to universalize the story. Or perhaps it is all meant ironically: the entire novel has a defiantly retro feel, right down to the paperback copy of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow that serves double duty as a sly comment on the narrative and a significant plot point. But the net effect is to denude the story of much of its authority.