Twenty years ago, Jane Hudson fled the Heart Lake School for Girls in the Adirondacks after a terrible tragedy. The week before her graduation, in that sheltered wonderland, three lives were taken, all victims of suicide. Only Jane was left to carry the burden of a mystery that has stayed hidden in the depths of Heart Lake for more than two decades. Now Jane has returned to the school as a Latin teacher, recently separated and hoping to make a fresh start with her young daughter. But ominous messages from the past dredge up forgotten memories. And young, troubled girls are beginning to die again–as piece by piece the shattering truth slowly floats to the surface. . . .
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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I have been told to make the latin curriculum relevant to the lives of my students. I am finding, though, that my advanced girls at Heart Lake like Latin precisely because it has no relevance to their lives. They like nothing better than a new, difficult declension to memorize. They write the noun endings on their palms in blue ballpoint ink and chant the declensions, “Puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella . . .” like novices counting their rosaries.
When it comes time for a test they line up at the washroom to scrub down. I lean against the cool tile wall watching them as the washbasins fill with pale blue foam and the archaic words run down the drains. When they offer to show me the undersides of their wrists for traces of letters I am unsure if I should look. If I look, am I showing that I don’t trust them? If I don’t look, will they think I am naive? When they put their upturned hands in mine—so light-boned and delicate—it is as if a fledgling has alighted in my lap. I am afraid to move.
In class I see only the tops of their hands—the black nail polish and silver skull rings. One girl even has a tattoo on the top of her right hand—an intricate blue pattern that she tells me is a Celtic knot. Now I look at the warm, pink flesh—their fingertips are tender and whorled from immersion in water, the scent of soap rises like incense. Three of the girls have scratched the inside of their wrists with pins or razors. The lines are fainter than the lifelines that crease their palms. I want to trace their scars with my fingertips and ask them why, but instead I squeeze their hands and tell them to go on into class. “Bona fortuna,” I say. “Good luck on the test.”
When I first came back to Heart Lake I was surprised at the new girls, but I soon realized that since my own time here the school has become a sort of last resort for a certain kind of girl. I have learned that even though the Heart Lake School for Girls still looks like a prestigious boarding school, it is not. It is really a place for girls who have already been kicked out of two or three of the really good schools. A place for girls whose parents have grown sick of drama, sick of blood on the bathroom floor, sick of the policeman at the door.
Athena (her real name is Ellen Craven, but I have come to think of the girls by the classical names they’ve chosen for class) is the last to finish washing. She has asked for extra credit, for more declensions and verb conjugations to learn, so she is up to her elbows in blue ink. She holds out her forearms for me to see and there is no way to avoid looking at the scar on her right arm that starts at the base of her palm and snakes up to the crook of her elbow. She sees me wince.
Athena shrugs. “It was a stupid thing to do,” she says. “I was all messed up over this boy last year, you know?”
I try to remember caring that much for a boy—I almost see a face—but it’s like trying to remember labor pains, you remember the symptoms of pain—the blurred vision, the way your mind moves in an ever-tightening circle around a nucleus so dense gravity itself seems to bend toward it—but not the pain itself.
“That’s why my aunt sent me to an all girls school,” Athena continues. “So I wouldn’t get so caught up with boys again. Like my mother goes to this place upstate when she needs to dry out—you know, get away from booze and pills? So, I’m here drying out from boys.”
I look up from her hands to her pale face—a paleness accentuated by her hair, which is dyed a blue-black that matches the circles under her eyes. I think I hear tears in her voice, but instead she is laughing. Before I can help myself I laugh, too. Then I turn away from her and yank paper towels from the dispenser so she can dry her arms.
I let the girls out early after the test. They whoop with delight and crowd the doorway. I am not insulted. This is part of the game we play. They like it when I’m strict. Up to a point. They like that the class is hard. They like me, I think. At first I flattered myself that it was because I understood them, but then one day I retrieved a note left on the floor.
“What do you think of her?” one girl had written.
“Let’s go easy on her,” another, later I identified the handwriting as Athena’s, had answered.
I realized then that the girls’ goodwill did not come from anything I had said or done. It came because they knew, with the uncanny instinct of teenagers, that I must have messed up as badly as they had to end up here.
Today they leave shaking the cramp out of their hands and comparing answers from the test. Vesta—the thin, studious one, the one who tries the hardest—holds the textbook open to read out the declension and conjugation endings. There are moans from some, little cries of triumph from others. Octavia and Flavia, the two Vietnamese sisters who are counting on classics scholarships to college, nod at each answer with the calm assurance of hard studiers. If I listened carefully I wouldn’t have to mark the tests at all to know what grades to give, but I let the sounds of sorrow and glee blur together. I can hear them all the way down the hall until Myra Todd opens her door and tells them they’re disturbing her biology lab.
I hear another door open and one of my girls calls out, “Hello, Miss Marshmallow.” Then I hear a high nervous laugh which I recognize as that of Gwendoline Marsh, the English teacher. It won’ t be Gwen, though, who complains; it’s Myra I’ll catch hell from later for letting them out before the bell. I don’t care. It’s worth it for the quiet that settles now over my empty classroom, for the minutes I’ll have before my next class.
I turn my chair around so that I face the window. On the lawn in front of the mansion I see my girls collapsed in a lopsided circle. From here their dark clothing and dyed hair—Athena’s blue-black, Aphrodite’s bleached blond, and Vesta’s lavender red, which is the same shade as the nylon hair on my daughter’s Little Mermaid doll—make them look like hybrid flowers bred into unnatural shades. Black dahlias and tulips. Flowers the bruised color of dead skin.
Past where the girls sit, Heart Lake lies blue-green and still in its glacial cradle of limestone. The water on this side of the lake is so bright it hurts my eyes. I rest them on the dark eastern end of the lake, where the pine tree shadows stain the water black. Then I pick my homework folder up off my desk and add the assignments I’ve collected today, sorting each girl’s new assignment with older work (as usual, I’m about a week behind in my grading). They’re easy to sort because almost all the girls use different kinds of paper that I’ve come to recognize as each girl’s distinctive trademark: lavender stationery for Vesta, the long yellow legal-size sheets for Aphrodite, lined paper with ragged edges which Athena tears from her black-and-white notebooks.
Sometimes the page Athena gives me has something else written on the reverse side. A few lines at the top that look to be the end of a diary entry. I know from the scraps I’ve read that she sometimes writes as if addressing a letter to herself and sometimes as if the journal itself were her correspondent. “Don’t forget,” I read in one of these coda. “You don’t need anyone but yourself.” And another time: “I promise I’ll write to you more often, you’re all I have.” Sometimes there is a drawing on the back of her assignment. Half a woman’s face dissolving into a wave. A rainbow sliced in two by a winged razor blade. A heart with a dagger through its middle. Cheap teenage symbolism. They could be pictures from the book I kept when I was her age.
I recognize the paper she uses by its ragged edge where it’s been pulled out of the thread-stitched notebook. If she’s not careful, pages will start to come loose. I know because I used the same sort of book when I was her age, the kind with the black-and-white- marbled covers. When I look down at the page I think I’ve got another piece of her journal, but then I turn it over and see the other side is blank. Athena’s homework is on a separate page at the bottom of the stack and I’ve lost track whether the page I’m holding is one that was just handed in or was already in the folder. I look back at the page I thought was her homework. There is a single line of tiny, cramped writing at the top of it. The ink is so pale that I have to move the paper into the light from the window in order to make it out.
You’re the only one I can ever tell.
I stare at the words so hard that a dim halo forms around them and I have to blink to make the darkness go away. Later I’ll wonder what I recognized first: the words that I wrote in my journal almost twenty years ago, or my own handwriting.
I make the students in my next class recite declen- sions until the sound of the other words in my head is a faint whisper, but as I walk to the dining hall the words reassert themselves in my brain. You’re the only one I can ever tell. Words any teenager might write in her diary. If I hadn’t recognized my own handwriting there would be no cause for alarm. The words could refer to anything, but knowing what they do refer to I can’ t help but wonder how someone has gotten hold of my old journal and slipped a page of it into my homework folder. At first I had thought it must be Athena, but then I realized that any of the girls could have handed me the page when she handed in her own assignment. For that matter, since I left the homework folder on my desk overnight and the classrooms are unlocked, anyone might have slipped the page into my homework folder.
Reading Group Guide
1. Given the trauma she endured there, why does
Jane return to the Heart Lake School for Girls?
Do you judge her options to be as limited as she does? Are there other factors at work in her decision?
2. Jane acknowledges: "I had thought it was all right to marry someone I didn't love, but what
I hadn't counted on was how it felt to share someone I loved with someone I didn't." Discuss the nature of Jane and Mitch's marriage and the impact Olivia's birth had on it.
3. How does motherhood change Jane's life?
4. Discuss Jane's socioeconomic background and its impact on her. Would you agree or disagree that class mobility in the United States takes a toll that is not always acknowledged or discussed?
5. How does Jane's image of herself correspond
(or not) with how others perceive her?
6. Lucy's aunt has a very different perspective on Lucy that contrasts sharply with Jane's worshipful remembrance. Do you think Jane is finally able to see Lucy in a more complicated light by the end of the novel? Why or why not?
7. How would you describe Lucy and how do you understand her actions?
8. Lucy had a magnetism that drew people to her, inspiring conflict and jealousy within her circle. Have you ever had such a friend or been such a friend?
9. Discuss the particular intensity of adolescent friendships and the havoc they can wreak as well as the benefits.
10. Do you think tragedy might have been averted if Lucy had been able to tell Matt the
"something that changes everything," which
Helen Chambers shared with her?
11. Matt's aunt refers to Jane as "Mattie's girl."
What do you think was the true nature of
Matt's feelings toward Jane?
12. Discuss the merits and drawbacks of the popular theories, ascribed to by school psychologist
Candace Lockhart in this novel,
about the crisis of confidence experienced by adolescent girls and its effects.
13. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of single-
sex versus coed schools. Which educational setting do you prefer and why?
14. Why do Jane's students decide to "go easy on her"? What does she think? What do you think?
15. Do you consider Jane a good teacher? What qualities constitute a good teacher?
16. What do you think of Helen Chambers's behavior toward her students, particularly her attitude toward and decisions regarding Lucy?
Was the school's decision to fire Chambers justified? Do you think this decision was based solely on her sexual orientation?
17. Discuss the many secrets finally brought to light in this novel and the corrosive and destructive impact secrets can have on those keeping them and those from whom information is withheld.
18. Jane has lived under a cloud of guilt and remorse since her senior year at Heart Lake. She wonders "if there's any end to this cycle of guilt and retribution." Do you think the truth will set her free?
19. Jane is haunted by a past that has severely compromised her ability to live in the present.
Discuss how people can become trapped by the past and how to make peace with it.
20. What shape do you imagine Jane's life will take after the end of this novel? Do you think she will leave Heart Lake? Should she?
21. Do you think the Heart Lake School will survive its most recent scandal?
22. There are many mysteries to be solved over the course of this novel. How do you read mysteries? Are you content to go along for the ride or determined to unravel the mysteries before the author reveals them? If you are the latter kind of reader,
did the author stump you or did you figure out what was going on in advance?
23. Discuss the structure of this novel as it shifts between the present and the past.