Review: The Twisted Thread, Charlotte Bacon; and a question about a literary trope with which I have lost patience

The Twisted Thread is a book I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of, but it was marked as a book about boarding school in the library catalogue so I was all over that. It’s boarding school + MURDER + pregnancy scandal, with a side order of class tension, and you guys, I like all those things. Hence it was an excellent book for several days on the subway, though it never reached the point where it was so absorbing I couldn’t put it down and had to read it while brushing my teeth and cooking and before going to bed. That’s okay though. Not all books can be unputdownable (indeed it seems rather few).

Intelligent, beautiful, wealthy Claire Harkness is found dead in her dorm room at Armitage Academy, and the school is immediately thrown into chaos. Nobody knows how she died nor, when they discover that she had recently had a baby, what happened to her child. Madeline Christopher, an interning teacher in the English department at Armitage, becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Claire and her baby, in concert with the police officer assigned to the case, himself an Armitage alum. This is good because you are never sitting there shrieking “Go to the police you silly person! Go tell the police!” Madeline always tells the police.

The characters in The Twisted Thread are well-developed and continue to be interesting all the way through the book. A major theme of the book is that deep mistrust adolescents have of authority figures, and Bacon presents this not as, If only these kids would talk to somebody in charge!, but rather as, No damn wonder. You see the adults in Claire’s life scrambling to disclaim authority for her unnoticed pregnancy and violent death; and the point-of-view characters discover some dark secrets about Armitage’s past and present. I liked the way this all played out, although the denouement did seem to slightly discount the central point that the adults are not good at knowing what’s going on and taking care of the kids for whom they are responsible.

As for the mystery, it resolved in a way that was thematically very reasonable and followed from the clues the author gave us along the way. If that sounds like faint praise, it is — one of the viewpoint characters seemed tangential to the rest of the plot, and I couldn’t figure out why we were spending so much time with him. Then I read the end and figured out that oh, right, it’s because we need him to provide some clues that would feel too much like clues and not enough like potential red herrings if they were things that Madeline or Matt uncovered. That is not a great reason to have a viewpoint character. It felt like a cheat.

Relatedly, I have a question: Has anyone ever met someone who was achingly beautiful in real life, and everyone thought she was beautiful and no one thought otherwise? Is that a real thing? I feel like it is not! I have met people who I thought were really, really pretty but it’s a matter of personal taste and sometimes I’d be like, “Oh my God, that girl’s in my English class, isn’t she the prettiest girl in all the land? Why don’t I look like that?”, and the person I was saying it too would be like, “Her? Really?” In short, I don’t buy it. It happens all the time in fiction, and I am now officially tired of it. This is not Truth in Television. This is just that it’s really easy in a book to describe someone as being so beautiful that everyone who sees her adores her even though that’s clearly nonsense.

They read it too: Reading thru the Night, S. Krishna’s Books, Presenting Lenore, Caribousmom, Book Magic, Reviews by Lola, Life in the Thumb, Bookworm1858, Popcorn Reads, Indie Reader Houston, bookchickdi, The Literary Lollipop, and tell me if I missed yours!

  • That is a pretty bizarre trope. Of course personal aesthetic preferences influence our assessments of physical beauty, just like they do everything else. So yeah, I can’t see how this could possibly be a real thing 😛

  • That is a very good point, Jenny. Although one time I did know this girl, and she was extremely lovely and also extremely CHARMING, and everyone wanted to be her friend. EVERYONE. So I think it is possible that when you combine sufficient good looks with the fairy christening gift of charm, you can really achieve that enchanting quality, and maybe you would call it beauty because you were so charmed by the charm that you no longer recognized it as charm. Thoughts?

    Also, I think Madeleine is a better spelling. 🙂

    • Yes, and that is an excellent point BUT, the charm that you describe was not a feature of the girl in this book. She was standoffish. But just really really really pretty.

  • Obviously you have not been to a boarding school or at least one prone to murders, because all the girls are achingly beautiful and all the guys are cute with floppy hair but have empty eyes and are evil.

    • *cracks up* You’re the best. And you’re quite right! How could I have been so silly! It’s only because I didn’t go to boarding school

  • I am totally with you on the universally beautiful thing!!!! That gets so ridiculously tiring.

    On a separate note, I often find that the books that drag you along irresistably are the ones I have the most trouble with.

    And on a third note, I am cracking up laughing at Jill’s comment above.

    • It wouldn’t if I felt like it were ever a real thing, but I have never in my life encountered such a thing, and apparently neither have any of y’all, so I don’t buy it.

  • Her name was Claire? You sure it wasn’t Snow White? Ariel? Sleeping Beauty? Sounds like a Disney Princess to me, sheer fantasy.

    • Except she was sort of mean. Breathtakingly beautiful! But mean.

      • Ah, then her name was Vanessa. Sea Witch in disguise.

  • No, it isn’t! Everybody experiences reality different, and that, of course, includes beauty. (And heck, even people who hit every average standard of aesthetic appeal can still be ugly human beings—and people with “ugly” traits can be attractive.) So you’ve got multiple people judging a person’s attractiveness—but most books are written by one person, and in their universe, it’s their standards of attractiveness that are the universal standard for everyone. You can see behind the curtain a bit there.

    • Yeah, and that’s why I don’t have a problem reading books where the narrator thinks someone is breathtaking. Because I can see that! There are people who I think are breathtakingly lovely. But to have everyone in the book respond to a character as if she were the beautifullest beautiful girl in all of beautiful land — that’s what strains credulity for me.

  • I didn’t enjoy this book as much I think I probably should have, and I felt that the murder got shoved back so far into the plot that it was a lot less urgent than I had hoped it would be. A lot of this book dealt with secrets, and semi-secret groups and societies, and a lot of it had to do with Madeline and her problems being a dorm leader, and her romance with the police man, I guess what I am trying to say is that there was so much going on, and so little of it was about the actual murder. Because all that took a backseat, I cared more about what was happening on campus and off versus what was happening regarding the investigation.

    • I didn’t mind the murder getting put on the back burner, necessarily, but a lot of the stuff that got put on the front burner felt peripheral. And yeah, I was totally uninterested in Madeline’s love life.

  • Keep reading the boarding school books. I love it! (Although this book WAS totally meh.)

    • This is the only other one I had! I checked out one called Gossip of the Starlings (or something), but I got bored with it. There are not enough boarding school books! People need to write more!

  • Oh please. Everyone knows that book bloggers are universally beautiful AND witty AND kind. So it is so true.

  • This was not my favorite book (I thought it just so-so – but mainly because there were too many characters who did not seem necessary!). LOL re: your question – I agree with you! Thanks for the link to my review (and pssst….it’s Charlotte Bacon, not Carolyn!)

  • I’ve never in my life met one of those achingly beautiful people. I mean, I’ve met people that LOTS of people thought were beautiful, but no one that EVERYONE agreed was beautiful and amazing and impossible to look away from. And many, though certainly not all, of the people that LOTS of people thought were beautiful were mean, which took something away from the finished product.

    Hmm.

  • Well, I will say this: while I love a good boarding school mystery (except when I don’t…like here: http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com/?p=4563), I am glad you did not include the cover for this book in your review. Because just on the basis of that cover I would not pick up this book. I guess I am shallow and want the books I read to have achingly beautiful covers…

  • In college, in Arkansas, in the 1980’s, I knew a girl who everybody I knew agreed was achingly beautiful. The aching part was that a white landlord one time refused to rent an apartment to her when he met her in person. She didn’t “sound black” over the phone.

  • Responding to your tag: The policeman was super adorable in “Blink” and so was Sally Sparrow for that matter. It should have happened . . . if it wasn’t for those scary angels.

  • Hmm… though it’s used far to much in fiction (and I don’t think there is one person EVERYONE would think was gergeous) I do think there are certain people that the masses think are pretty. You only need to look at the magazines in the grocery store check-out to see that…

  • You know, I’ve never thought about that trope before. Hmm. I’m definitely the person that everyone thinks has weird taste when it comes to beauty.

  • I was told that a girl I work with said to someone that I was the prettiest person she knew. And I would really love that to be a generally accepted truth, but sadly, I think everyone’s reaction was more along the lines : ‘her? Really?’

    Have you ever read ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ ?