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The Eliot Girls

by Krista Bridge

In her debut novel, Danuta Gleed Literary Award nominee Krista Bridge explores timeless and timely themes: adultery and psychological bullying among teen girls.

The fictional George Eliot Academy in Toronto boasts a curriculum that blends a progressive, feminist agenda with a staunchly moralistic, almost religious traditionalism. Audrey Brindle is a likeable, if somewhat morose, Grade 10 student who is reluctantly accepted into the all-girls school as a nepotistic favour to her mother, Ruth, who teaches there.

Audrey struggles to live up to Eliot’s high academic standards and fit into the school’s bewildering social landscape. In an effort to impress Arabella Quincy, the most popular (and manipulative) girl in her grade, Audrey becomes embroiled in a cruel plot to torment one of her peers. Ruth, meanwhile, begins an affair with the academy’s newest teacher, Henry Winter – who happens to be married to Arabella’s mother. What is interesting about both Audrey’s yearning for acceptance and Ruth’s experiment with infidelity is that they both seem to dislike the very people they are trying so hard to please.

The bullying that goes on at the academy does not involve social media or the Internet, which may strike readers as a missed opportunity to fully engage with the issue. And Bridge’s prose occasionally veers into the florid and overwritten: a ringing phone startles a character “back into acuity”; teenagers engage in “simulacrum[s] of rebellion” or imagine “ameliorated incarnation[s]” of themselves; at one point, Ruth wonders why Audrey seems to lack the “typical ebullience” of her peers. This kind of verbiage is distracting and unnecessary. At other times, Bridge’s writerly flourishes are spot on, such as when Ruth feels a “callous bliss” over her affair and refers to the secrecy of it as “a dizzying liberation.”

Bridge wisely avoids the cliché of giving Audrey a crush on a boy – a welcome exclusion in a novel that, at its centre, is about a mother’s recklessness and her daughter’s awkward navigation of the social minefield that is teenage girlhood, a world fraught with what Audrey calls “the inescapability of humiliation.”