Book Review: At Briarwood School for Girls

Michael Knight, At Briarwood School for Girls
Grove Atlantic: Atlantic Monthly Press 2019
240 pages, paperback, $26.00

HOW DO A new Disney theme park, a high school play production, and a teenage pregnancy all relate to one another? Not in the way I expected to say the least, and I’m certain it’s not the way you would expect it to either. Michael Knight certainly keeps the surprises coming in At Briarwood School for Girls. The seemingly coming-of-age story comes right on the heels of his most recent release, Eveningland. In At Briarwood School for Girls, Knight is able to experiment with the typical coming of age story–by including adult perspectives– while putting a historical spin on it, tying to his Southern roots, and keeping readers avidly guessing.

At Briarwood School for Girls follows the three main characters: Lenore Littlefeild, Mr. Bishop, and Coach Fink, as they embark on their own journeys that are helplessly intertwined by the historically-rich school they all are individually bound to. In early 1994,  Lenore, a student at Briarwood, finds herself forced into playing the lead role in the controversial play, The Phantom Of Thornton Hall, written by a Briarwood alum and directed by Lenore’s overly intense basketball coach, Coach Fink. But as the play rehearsals begin, it doesn’t take long for Lenore to realize how oddly similar she is to the character she is portraying; both girls are pregnant. Mr. Bishop, Lenore’s history teacher and having shared a bond with Lenore over their common dislike of the new Disney’s America amusement park that’s being built near the school, is the only person that knows Lenore’s secret, which becomes harder and harder for him to keep. Both the reality of the construction of Disney’s America and the decisions Lenore faces with her pregnancy begin to escalate as the spring semester progresses and eventually culminate with the production of The Phantom of Thornton Hall.

At Briarwood School for Girls captures the all so familiar elements of a boarding school from ouija boards to sneaking out while also leaving you constantly wondering “what the heck is going on?!” With something unexpected around each corner, it’s easy to get swept along with the novel’s complex teenaged plot rather than focusing on Knight’s underlying ideas of wrestling with your own fate and how history plays a part your life. History plays a large role in each character’s life throughout the novel. It is able to unite the seemingly different characters, so it would only make sense for such historically rich story to take place in one of the most historical states in America:Virginia. Lenore seems to be impacted the most by the weight of the past, which leads her to question if she truly has control of her choices or if she is just repeating the past. Both ideas are universal concepts that Lenore struggles with and are applicable to most readers own lives, which to me, seems to expand the novel’s audience.

Apart from the historical aspects, the format of At Briarwood School for Girls makes it unique to its genre. The novel’s teenaged plot almost always falls within the coming-of-age category but rather than embracing this stereotype Knight chooses to make At Briarwood School for Girls a little bit more unique. Most coming of age stories typically are written from the teenager’s (the character assumed to be doing the growing up) perspective.  Knight divides each chapter into three sections where three different perspectives are displayed; it is typically a combination of Lenore’s, Coach Fink’s, and Mr. Bishop’s perspectives with the occasional addition of another character’s. The most interesting part is that the majority of these perspectives are from adults rather than the teenage protagonist.  

With At Briarwood School for Girls’ different elements all functioning at once, it can be a challenge to keep up with exactly what is going on in the novel. Even though this might seem to be a flaw, the novel still has a lot of interesting aspects that a broad audience can enjoy and relate to. So, if you often find yourself pondering the meaning of fate and free will, or want to know what it’s like to be 16 and pregnant, or ever wonder why there isn’t an American theme park, or simply need some action and drama to spice up your life, then adding Knight’s newest novel to your reading list certainly won’t disappoint.