This article contains references to sexual assault and rape that may be troubling to some readers.
Stanford alumna Emily Layden’s ’11 debut novel “All Girls” has been described as “Prep” meets “My Dark Vanessa.”
The novel-in-vignettes, released last month, focuses on a diverse cast of nine characters attending the boarding school Atwater. Set during the 2015-16 school year, these young women juggle school, friendships, sexuality and class amid a traditional coming-of-age experience.
Simultaneously, though, the girls’ narrative grapples with a backstory that began 20 years before they arrived on campus: a sexual assault allegation that the school wants to silence. The accusations, and the fallout, invite the reader into a world of institutional privilege and sexism even as they are drawn deeper into the girls’ stories.
The novel opens with a description of Atwater’s location, a northwest corner of Litchfield County, Connecticut where “there are no major highways.” An ambiguous character appears and sets up a series of signs, designed to maximize their impact: Each displays an image of Atwater’s well-known tower and text that exclaims “A RAPIST WORKS HERE.”
The opening introduces a central mystery of the book — the identity of the victim and the rapist. But the ambiguous point of view also serves to encompass all the women in the story and the readers alike. By refusing to disclose this person’s identity, Layden universalizes the stories of sexual assault, showing how the horrors they underwent could happen to anyone.
In turn, the town’s reaction — and the reactions of the Atwater parents, who see the signs while dropping their children off at school for the year — shows how society reacts to these cases: Observers question the validity of the message rather than doing something about it. They think only about themselves, and about how they have to look at something so “vulgar”; few look at the URL provided to read about sexual assault in Connecticut, and instead they brush the incident off as “a prank,” something they can forget. Right from the jump, Layden introduces the idea that privilege and status allows people to choose to ignore “calls to action,” specifically when those calls do not affect them. Here, a women’s plea for accountability was ignored: To this community, “it was never any of their business.”
At the end of the first vignette, an email from Atwater’s headmaster compounds the lack of accountability. The Headmaster’s email not only invalidates the significance of the signs and feeds into what the town wants to hear, but also it attempts to portray the signs themselves as a danger to the girls. While a thorough investigation is promised, it’s obvious, as one character mentions early on, that “they’re [not] taking any of this all of that seriously.”
The events of the 2015-16 school year are narrated through nine girls. The story begins with Lauren Triplett, a dedicated student aiming for Wellesley, seeing the signs when she arrives at Atwater for her first day of freshman year. Each chapter, the story shifts perspective: There’s Macy Grant, a runner who suffers from severe anxiety; Slone, a failed ballerina; Celeste, the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants; and more. The girls’ reactions to the case vary. Some view Atwater in a more negative light, while others victim-blame and defend the institution.
While nine different perspectives may be hard to juggle, Layden takes on the challenge for a reason: The interwoven structure highlights the importance of exploring the aftershocks of a traumatic event through a community, rather than burdening one girl with displaying the emotions and experiences of many. As senior Mia Tavoletti tells freshman Bryce in the book’s final pages, they have “been living inside the section of the Venn diagram where a culture that protects men . . . overlaps with one obsessed with prestige and status and reputation.” Years later, Layden writes, Bryce will “look back on this moment and realize that the Venn diagram Mia described had a third circle overlapping the other two: the portion of a culture that takes and takes and takes from girls, all the while refusing to recognize them as whole people.”
Layden’s strong narration and real-to-life characters in “All Girls” come together to deliver a powerful and urgent appeal to her readers: to recognize where the power resides within the systems we live in, to understand how those systems disadvantage those they are not designed for and to act upon them for change.