Welcome to St. John the Divine, an English boarding school for girls where students (nicknamed the Divines) keep secrets, form alliances and vie for popularity. There are several things that make a Divine: the coy hair flip, the blasé use of French, the haughty walk, the mysterious nicknames. To be one of the Divines is to embody something intangible, a result of the social molding that takes place in every girl that enters the school’s hallowed halls. But what goes on behind the smiles and façades?
In Ellie Eaton’s razor-sharp new novel, “The Divines,” Josephine, a former student at St. John the Divine, revisits the grounds of her old school and reflects on her haunted past. In her last year at boarding school, a scandal rocked the Divines that torments Josephine well into her adult life. Under her husband’s gentle prompting, Josephine faces her complicated past and realizes that, despite the distance she put between herself and her old school, she can never fully escape its legacy.
The world of the Divines is equally compelling and twisted; they exude a kind of ethereal energy that is intoxicating to read about. Eaton makes sweeping claims about her characters, saying, “Divines were committed oversharers by nature,” “together Divines were indomitable” and “Divines could sleep anywhere,” giving the reader a sense of the exclusive and cult-like nature of the novel.
At the same time, the petty grievances, social struggles, references to sexual misconduct and class biases reveal an uglier side to the world of the Divines. The fact of the matter is the girls of the Divine are snobby and entitled, calling the residents of a nearby village ‘townies’ and flaunting their privilege and money. Josephine seems to disapprove of this behavior, but is equally complicit.
In this way, the novel perfectly captures the pain of adolescence, making sharp observations about social dynamics and the cruelty of youth. Little interactions between the girls felt momentous: Fleeting looks, cold shoulders and insincere smiles become agonizingly significant. “The Divines” painfully reminded me of my angsty teenage years, evoking the same raw and gritty feelings.
The story unfolds at a perfectly measured pace. As Josephine reflects on her past as a Divine, little by little, details of her time at the boarding school reveal themselves. For the reader, there is a sense of foreboding. Something bad is going to happen and you can feel it.
The prologue gives a little taste of the scandal that occurs, leaving the reader hooked, needing to know what happens. I spent the rest of the novel breathlessly awaiting the big reveal, feeling the tension in the novel coil tight like a spring. Eaton writes with a nuance and masterful grasp of social interplay that feels reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.”
As a teenager, Josephine is angsty, self-conscious and compliant. She is tormented with thoughts of whether she is liked, where she falls on the social ladder at school and how she can appear cool. On the other hand, her adult self is happily married and self-sufficient. One thing I struggled with while reading “The Divines” was this gaping disconnect between Josephine’s past and present selves; how did this insecure, awkward teenager become a functioning adult? I don’t doubt that this kind of transformation is possible (I can only hope that I’ve changed a lot from my high school self), but the book offers no insight into how Josephine turned out so different as an adult.
Were her teenage insecurities purely run-of-the-mill adolescent angst, something she grew out of with age? This question isn’t really answered in the novel, and I was left struggling to bridge the gap between younger and older Josephine. I did, however, enjoy seeing how Jospehine’s past affected her as an adult. Though somewhat disjointed, the paralleled storylines serve their intended purpose, adding to the suspense and allowing us to see the legacy of Josephine’s past as a Divine.
Because of the slow and deliberate development of the novel, it took me a while to get into it, but when I did, boy, was I hooked. “The Divines” is a provocative coming of age story, rich with explorations of class divides, secrets, sexual awakenings and adolescent insecurities. I will admit I began reading knowing nothing about the novel or author, but was left haunted by the story for days after I finished and keenly interested in what Ellie Eaton might write next. The Divines’ school motto is memoir amici, (“remember friends”) — an ironic inclusion considering Josephine spends most of her adult life trying to escape her past as a Divine.
And yet, in the end, she is unable to. She is just as haunted by childhood friendships, secrets and the trauma of her past well into adulthood. “The Divines” brought me back to my own adolescence, and the experience felt just as exciting, awkward, uncomfortable and thrilling as I remember it.
Daily Arts Writer Emma Doettling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.