Review | The St Ambrose School for Girls, by Jessica Ward

StAmbroseWhen Sarah Taylor arrives at the exclusive St Ambrose School, she’s hyper-aware of how different she is from her wealthier classmates. Her attempts to escape her social climber mom and carve a new identity as goth girl Bo are foiled when her mom meets mean girl queen bee Greta on the first day. Fortunately, Sarah finds a friend in her roommate Strots, an athlete too cool to care about what Greta thinks and too rich to ever get into trouble herself.

This social hierarchy boarding school story is given additional layers by Sarah’s mental health condition: she’s bipolar, and desperate to keep her bottle of lithium pills and history of attempted suicide from her new schoolmates. Things escalate when Greta chooses Sarah as a target of her bullying, and Sarah in turn discovers something that Greta herself wants to keep secret.

The St Ambrose School for Girls isn’t quite psychological thriller so much as psychological drama. Ward draws us into Sarah’s mind, the rapid swings between optimism and depression, and the bigger picture downward spiral as her attempts to create a good life at St Ambrose are constantly foiled by Greta’s bullying and her own mental health situation.

The story is solid, and Ward’s depiction of all the ways girls can inflict cruelties on each other is vivid and raw. There’s a subplot about Strots’ own history with Greta that makes a spot-on, if not at all surprising, observation about the priorities of an institution like St Ambrose, and how these play out in terms of their standards of acceptable behaviour. The fallout of Greta’s secret led to its logical, albeit tragic, conclusion, and the mystery it created had enough twistiness that the big reveal wasn’t immediately apparent.

Overall, this was pretty good. The pacing was a bit slow, and the tone a bit more somber than I anticipated. (I was hoping for a fun and twisty thriller melodrama.) The story was solid but not especially memorable. Despite the deeper-than-usual dive into a bipolar main character, nothing about the plot especially stood out to me or truly got its hooks in. (I’ll defer to readers with lived experiences of bipolar disorder to advise on how true-to-life the depiction is.) So it didn’t quite keep me flipping the pages as eagerly as I otherwise may have. Still, the writing was good, and the pacing strong enough to keep me reading till the end.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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