The author astutely captures the claustrophobic and toxic culture of conformity among teenage girls, and while the book’s multiple perspectives prevent deep engagement with any single character, Layden nonetheless creates an incisive portrait of young women in the #MeToo era
It feels like the setup of a thriller, but rather than delve into institutional drama, All Girls looks to the periphery of the scandal: to current Atwater students who experience the fallout of the rape allegation as a backdrop to their academic year. With each chapter focusing on a different girl, readers navigate Fall Fest, vespers, prom, a breakup, a sexual assault, the chance meeting of an estranged friend ... Nine narrators is a lot and names can be hard to remember, but the pages turn fast and the girls are complex, compelling and written with incredible tenderness. Layden excels at rendering the everyday details of boarding school life — a dorm hallway littered with plugged-in hair straighteners and makeup bags, girls groggy at Saturday breakfast dressed in sweats and socks, the LOL-laden group texts of gossip ... All Girls is about teenage girls, but it’s also a portrait of an institution recalibrating itself, trying to figure out how to retain power. The novel reaches for nuance, though for some readers the situation may be too straightforward for ambiguity: A teacher raped a student and the school covered it up.
Readers will find themselves thinking about the vividly and compassionately rendered characters long after their chapters end, and considering decisions they would make in the same situations. Give it to grown-up fans of Gossip Girl and readers of Curtis Sittenfeld and Emma Straub.