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  • Mandy McHugh

MADAM, Phoebe Wynne: A Review

From the comp titles to the alluring cover, I was intrigued by Madam's premise. I love a good boarding school mystery, so I was excited to start this one.

Rose secures a position as the head of Classics at an elite all-girls boarding school in Scotland. Worried about leaving her ailing mother but excited at the potential that comes with the job, Rose does her best to fit in but finds that the harder she tries, the more she feels alienated from the group. Disobedient students, vague rules, and mysterious traditions, there are countless reasons she could fail, but as she learns more about the school and its history, she realizes that there's more at stake than her career. I liked this book. As a protagonist, Rose is an interesting character. Her interactions with the students were my favorite moments, and I think Wynne nailed the voices here. At times, this reminded me of A Cure for Wellness, where she knows there's something off with her circumstance but she can't quite put her finger on what it is--until she can. It was entertaining to see her weave through the ambiguities and strangeness until the answers tumbled forward, and I think a lot of readers will get the full impact of the reveal. I also think some will figure this out sooner than later, and even if you do, there's still an uneasy sense of dread that lingers between the lines. You don't know what's going to happen, but there's no shortage of speculation. Because of this, I wouldn't categorize Madam as a mindless beach read. While the surface-level plot of Rose and the strange school is both concerning and engrossing, there's more going on here than that. Classic Greek and Roman women and their stories are woven into the symbolism of the girls' dynamics. Wynne gives us excerpts/synopses of the books the girls are discussing to put us more in Rose's mind frame. It goes a long way to strengthen atmosphere, character depth, and conflict, and I think these are particularly helpful to readers who may not be versed in classics to Rose's extent. This is a book about social issues: gender inequality, gender roles, and sexuality. Classism and racism. It is also a book that makes you question your blind faith into systems because everyone else around you tells you that it's working, or it's good, or it's the way things are done. I did have some believability issues where I had too many questions of plausibility. I got that there's supposed to be this in-the-dark atmosphere, but I struggled with how little Rose knew about her position, how little effort she put into lesson plans, assessments or finding her footing in curriculum, and her blind assumption or acceptance of being out of the loop. Suspending those aspects, however, I loved seeing how she navigated her situation. Overall, Madam is an atmospheric, clever mystery that touches on relevant social issues and wants you to question established social norms. I'd recommend to fans of Cure for Wellness, Dead Poets Society, boarding school mysteries in the vein of JT Ellison's Good Girls Lie, or quiet international suspense. Thank you to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for pre-approving an eARC in exchange for honest review consideration.

 

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