At first glance, Julie Berry’s books might seem to be all over the map in terms of subject matter, tone, and intended audience. Her debut novel, The Amaranth Enchantment, was a sparkling fairy tale for ages 10-14; her Splurch Academy middle grade series was unusually fresh and funny, comic kid-vs.-monster hijinx adventure fare for 7-10-year-olds; and her All the Truth That’s in Me was a startling, powerful, gorgeously written young adult novel in stark, poetic prose for ages 12-17. When I heard she had a new novel coming out this fall, I perked up; what on earth would she have in store for us this time?
Turns out, it’s something different once again: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is Jane Austen meets Frances Hodgson Burnett by way of Edward Gorey. It’s a gleefully farcical, Victorian-era boarding school story with a hint of romance for ages 11-15, featuring seven female students and a twist:
the villainous headmistress and her brother, instead of tormenting their poor victims through the length of the book, drop dead almost immediately, victims of a poisoned dinner. (Since none of the students were allowed to eat the veal, of course, they were spared a sudden end.) The rest of the book is spent with the students — Smooth Kitty, Dull Martha, Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane, Pocked Louise, Dour Elinor, and Stout Alice — trying to keep the pair’s demise secret so the girls won’t be sent home to their miserable existences. Meanwhile, there’s the matter of the murders: did one — or more — of the girls have something to do with it? If not, who’s the murderer? And will one of them be the next victim? This is indeed a “fizzy romp,” as Julie Berry describes her intention for the book in the acknowledgements; fizz flavored with, if not acid, then tonic.
When you look at Berry’s books as a whole, it turns out that what binds them all together is her sharp wit, not to mention her nimble, lively intellect and utter commitment to whatever story she chooses to tell. She’s that rare bird: a writer’s writer AND a terrific storyteller. Brilliant but not precious, able to wield language seriously or exuberantly with equal deftness.
For a teaser treat, take a look at the trailer for the Scandalous Sisterhood:
Ksenia Winnicki at Macmillan tells me that the trailer’s audio track was recorded in a Victorian Congregational church sanctuary in Newton, Mass. The music was improvised live by Andrus Madsen on an 18th-century pianoforte as the actress narrated the script. It was a gothic jazz session! Madsen, says Winnicki, was “mimicking the melodrama musical style used in 18th-century German live performances (a precursor to opera, musical theater, and silent film scores).” Very cool! *And not at all disreputable, truly.
Give The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place to readers who loved The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry and Peppermints in the Parlor by Barbara Brooks Wallace when they were a bit younger, and The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman now.
P.S. On a related side matter: I think this is the first time I have ever read an author’s note that is not only informative but with a tone as sly and entertaining as the novel itself. (I also loved learning that all of the period details in the book came from extensive research.)