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The Divines

Review

The Divines

Ellie Eaton makes her debut with THE DIVINES, which combines the boarding school drama of novels like THE SECRET HISTORY with the emotional grit of works like TRUE STORY. Alternating between an elite English boarding school and present-day Los Angeles, the book tells the story of Josephine, a former chain-smoking, hair-flipping posh student who as an adult grapples with the far-reaching repercussions of the tragic and abrupt ending to her life at St. John the Divine.

When we meet Josephine, she is 16 years old and caught up in all the turmoil that comes with being a teenage girl --- all of which is amplified by her attendance at an elite boarding school that breeds “Divines,” fine young women who grow up into Divine Old Girls, with rich, handsome husbands, fulfilling careers and a lifetime of opportunities available to them. The Divines are privileged, beautiful girls with long hair, trendy styles and endless funds, which makes them instant enemies of the locals who reside in the surrounding town. St. John the Divine is the largest business in town, one of the only places that hires locals in abundance, and there is a marked line between the Divines and the hardworking people who clean their rooms, wash their clothes and make their food. But none of this matters to a Divine.

"Ellie Eaton is a tremendously skilled writer who is able to bring to life the double-edged sword of freedom and claustrophobia that comes with youth and examine it from a distance, highlighting the ways that our memories can lie to us."

At 16, Joe --- all the girls call each other by male versions of their names --- is a bit of a late bloomer. Unlike her peers, she is not sexually active or (according to her) very pretty, though she has mastered a particularly coy hair flip and matching facial expression that gives her somewhat of an edge. Though it is her fifth year at St. John, she is dealing with a quiet and terrifying end to her strongest friendship at school, and teenage girls being who they are, she walks a careful line between desperately wanting to appear cool and desired and trying to remain just aloof enough to warrant any interest --- both from her friends and from the boys they chase, gossip about and dream of marrying. Adding insult to injury, Joe has been assigned the school outcast as a roommate: Gerry Lake, or the Poison Dwarf, as the girls call her.

With these smears on her reputation, Joe seems destined to a lonely, painful year. One day, she meets a townie named Lauren who seems to take a shine to her, popping up at random intervals to share cigarettes and local gossip. Before long, Joe and Lauren become quite close, pushing Joe even further away from her former posse of popular girls and leading her into an almost certain downfall.

In alternating chapters, we meet an adult Joe, who now calls herself Sephine. She has a wonderful, handsome husband named Jurgen and some reasonable success as a journalist, but is no longer what one would consider Divine, and she hasn't spoken to another Divine in 15 years. Jurgen, finding her hesitancy to discuss her boarding school life strange, begs her to talk about her experiences at St. John, her friends and how Gerry ended up falling from a window, leaving a bloodstain on the concrete and an irreparable tear in Sephine’s life as a Divine.

As Sephine shares her story, she becomes obsessed with the past, edging closer and closer to the truth of what happened in her last year as a Divine. Through flashbacks to her controversial friendship with Lauren, her dalliances with local men, and painful, vivid memories of teenage bullying and violence, she paints a picture of a provocative world brimming with teenage sexuality, female identity and the barriers that ignite class wars. But as she circles closer to the truth, her present-day life starts to unravel as she reexamines her youth and finds that her perceptions --- both then and now --- were not always as close to reality as she thought.

Ellie Eaton is a tremendously skilled writer who is able to bring to life the double-edged sword of freedom and claustrophobia that comes with youth and examine it from a distance, highlighting the ways that our memories can lie to us. Her portrayals of teenage girls, Divine and mortal, is scorchingly crisp, unflinching and tautly written. Describing the fallout of Joe’s friendship at school, Eaton writes, “Riddled with insecurities, I had a propensity to read too much into a situation…. I tortured myself over trivial comments, a flippant remark about my clothes or hair, analyzing the exact wording for hidden criticisms, looping it in my head.” It might sound paranoid, but any woman can tell you that the hidden criticisms will always be there if you look hard enough for them. These scenes are painful but magnetic, with a “can’t look away” energy that feels raw and destructive, full of kinetic energy and smothering weight.

But even more skilled is the way that Eaton tracks these memories from the past and lays them bare against the present, forcing both Josephine and her readers to wonder about the power of perception and how we can reconcile our present with our past. The added dramas of age and insecurity (can any of us really see ourselves clearly as teens?) blur the lines even more, creating a sort of mystery and giving the book some truly compelling, suspenseful heft. As Eaton reminds us, while we are all affected and changed by our pasts, some of us are growing from them and others are haunted by them.

Provocative and full of insightful takes on toxic friendships, female sexuality and socioeconomic classism, THE DIVINES is a must-read for anyone who has ever been --- or been hurt by --- a teenage girl and lived to tell the tale.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 22, 2021

The Divines
by Ellie Eaton

  • Publication Date: January 19, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0063012197
  • ISBN-13: 9780063012196