NETGALLEY BOOK REVIEW: Madam by Phoebe Wynne

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3/5 stars

The mythology of boarding schools looms large in the collective psyche–like most millennials, I grew up with Harry Potter and the intrigue that comes with living where you go to school. But these classic stories tend to focus on the students and their adventures in the ivy-covered walls of their beloved institution. What about the teachers, living an adult life among children in a school that feels older than time itself?

Madam is set in the early 1990s, focusing on Rose, a young Classics teacher hired to work at Caldonbrae, a mysterious boarding school for young women in the Scottish Highlands. The school has strange traditions and the students don’t seem like normal teenagers–uninterested in contemporary pop culture and taking lessons in conversational skills and other finishing-school-type subjects. Rose’s lessons on the women of Ancient Greece and Rome seem to be having no effect. Rose is one of the first new hires at Caldonbrae in years, and the school’s reach seems wide–with part of her contract including moving her mother into a private care home. Her movements are controlled and her relationship with her students is troubled from the beginning, when a student accuses her of misconduct only a few days into term and there are constant whisperings about what happened to the last Classics teacher.

The suspense is high as Rose finds out more about the school and its purpose, with her lessons becoming unravelled and the school interfering more in her personal life. Her involvement in Caldonbrae’s institution becomes a harder and harder pill to swallow as she grows closer to her students and comes to realise the fate sealed for them.

My main problem with this book is the pacing–when the “twist” is revealed and Rose finds out the true purpose of the school, we’re already halfway through the book (and not to brag, but the twist wasn’t a huge surprise–I called it a few chapters in, and the payoff wasn’t very satisfying). Rose’s backstory is also a bit weak, with some dubious commentary on rape accusations that made me feel a bit icky. The sense of place and setting in the 1990s just wasn’t developed enough, rather more of just an easy plot device to keep Rose from being able to… read a few Glassdoor reviews before taking this job, I guess?

This is getting compared to The Secret History a lot, which doesn’t quite feel accurate–it has the Gothic, dark academia aesthetic down, but next to none of the character development of a Tartt novel. While it’s an intriguing premise and a setup for a sequel (of course), Madam just felt a little too flat to pull me in more.

Thanks to NetGalley and Quercus Books for the ARC.

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