Prep School Confidential

By Michael Knight

Boarding school: What better setting can a novelist ask for? The straitjacket of tradition and the struggle for excellence; teenage fantasies that brush up against burgeoning adult realities; a refreshing lack of accountability. As Colm Toibin once explained in The London Review of Books, “Mothers get in the way in fiction: They take up space that is better occupied by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” Fathers, too. In boarding school novels the drama is forged from parental absence.

Michael Knight’s new addition to the genre, “At Briarwood School for Girls,” doesn’t make enough of that opportunity. Lenore Littlefield is a junior at Briarwood, a pedigreed institution in the low rolling hills near Manassas, Va. She has told no one that she’s pregnant and lets her life tick on as usual while she awaits spring break and an abortion in D.C. Meanwhile, she’s been cast in the school production of “The Phantom of Thornton Hall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning debut play by Eugenia Marsh, a graduate of Briarwood and now a Harper Lee-style recluse. As the play’s lead character, Jenny March, Lenore — in a nice bit of symmetry — plays a pregnant boarding school student who communicates with the ghost of a dead girl named Eleanor who comes to visit her late at night. After Lenore and her roommate use a Ouija board to reach out to Briarwood’s own resident ghost, Lenore begins having strange, otherworldly middle-of-the-night liaisons of her own. If the name similarities twist you up (Lenore and Eleanor, Eugenia and Jenny) they’re meant to — doppelgängers are something of an obsession here.

Knight doesn’t use all those tightly corralled, hormonal bodies to stir up narrative tension. Instead, “Briarwood” is low-key, even placid; it floats from event to event without ever raising its pulse. In some aspects, this serves it well — Lenore is a considered young woman, dreamy enough to fall under the spell of a maybe-ghost. She even drifts through her pregnancy crisis with calm and resolve.

But Knight unfortunately diverts our attention with two in loco parentis adults: Coach Patricia Fink, who has been brought over from the basketball team to oversee the production of “The Phantom of Thornton Hall” even though her tendency is to send the cast members “off to run laps,” and Mr. Bishop, the charismatic but anxious American history teacher who strikes up a kinship with Lenore when she unexpectedly blurts out the secret of her pregnancy. Both are given plenty of space for their own musings and worries, but their presence smothers the story’s low-burning flame. A bildungsroman — even a spare one — needs to give its heroine a wide berth so readers can watch her unfold.

Eugenia Marsh is the chasm at the center of “Briarwood.” Is there some spiritual connection between her and Lenore? Is “The Phantom” based on her own encounters with the supernatural? Why did she stop writing and shut herself up in a rambling farmhouse? Will she show up for opening night? In a small novel packed with side plots, I was greedy for more of Lenore and Eugenia, eager to see the connective tissue, for Lenore to fill in the hole that Eugenia leaves in the plot.

Alas, with all that space to range, Lenore doesn’t go very far, and the criticism about Marsh’s second and final play, “Dream Entropy,” also rings true for Knight’s novel: “Life is little more than an endless loop of ever-repeating history, an idea that might be interesting in theory but which produces very little actual drama when rendered for the stage.”

Hillary Kelly is a contributing writer for New York magazine.

By Michael Knight
304 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $26.

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