August Read of the Month: “Wayward Girls,” by Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

What dark secrets lurk behind the walls of Talbot Hall for Girls? Which adults might prove allies of the teens—and which ones can’t be trusted? Can the girls even trust each other? Sizzling with tension and intriguing characters, Wayward Girls, by Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel, is set in a creepy Central Florida boarding school that is supposed to provide structure for teens whose parents or therapists have deemed them as too rebellious, who thought they were “crazy girls. The ones who lied.” Their infractions seem to be as trivial as skipping school—so what’s really going on?

Claire Matturro

Boarding school stories have a long tradition, beginning with John Knowles A Separate Peace, and progressing to such stand-outs as Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, and Chessy Prout’s memoir I Have a Right To and even to J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts series. The closed world of such a school invites the formation of cliques, of closely held secrets, of fierce loyalties and biting betrayals. In this contained world, powerful adults have control over every aspect of the lives of their charges. Matturro and Koepsel depict a terrifying world where vulnerable teens are held quite nearly captive by adults, some who do have their best interests at heart—and others who have no scruples about abusing those entrusted to their care. These girls must rely on their instincts, intellect, and each other to sort out who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Their safety and their very lives depend on how well they navigate the dangerous grounds at Talbot Hall.

Wayward Girls takes place in two time periods. One follows the girls in their past as Talbot students; the other is current day, narrated by two of the girls—Jude and Camille—now adults themselves, both troubled by past events despite the success they have found in their careers. They bear scars from their time at Talbot, evinced in Jude’s alcoholism and in both women’s troubled relationships with men. Early on, the adult narrators reveal that they had watched the headmaster’s house burn to ash, and now they plan to travel back to Talbot to watch the old school building “smashed to rubble.” Their desire to witness the demolition raises this question: what happened at Talbot that was so terrible that former students will interrupt their adult lives and travel many miles to watch it destroyed? The careful unfolding of the truth as the story moves back and forth in time is a testament to the skill of these talented authors.

Penny Koepsel

As students, the red-headed Jude is a pot-smoking, religious, hippie artist, while the petite, journal-writing Camille is more reserved. Other key players on the student side of the plot include the biracial Makena; loud, redneck Wanda Ann; and tattletale Elizabeth. Most of the staff members are introduced through Camille’s viewpoint. The “uncool” Mrs. Dalfour, nicknamed Twitch, reigns as the second-floor housemother charged with turning the girls into “ladies.” Jack is the night watchman who resembles Mick Jagger and leers at the teens. But worst of all is “Dr. Psycho himself, Dr. Richard Hedstrom,” whom Camille has nicknamed Dr. Head, short for Dickhead. He is the therapist who convinced her parents to send her to Talbot in the first place. Now she learns he is the on-campus counselor as well. Something about his smirk and mannerisms makes Camille’s stomach queasy, an instinctual reaction that alerts readers not trust him either. The attention he showers on a few teens who appear much younger than their age also makes him suspect. Dr. Head accuses Camille of “paranoia and anxiety” and being forgetful and out of touch with reality. Camille’s classmates also begin to doubt whether her dread of Hedstrom is reasonable. This is a brilliant ploy on the part of the authors. It draws on one of our greatest fears: that we will know a threat exists but can’t persuade anyone to believe us—an archetypal fear illustrated by Greek mythology’s Cassandra, who had the gift of foreseeing the future but no one would believe her warnings.

Another adult key to the plot is Headmaster Ian Crane. He and his wife Grace (a.k.a. Spacey Gracey) live on campus with their baby daughter Michelle. An air of mystery surrounds the family, especially as the new scholarship student, Wanda Ann, becomes obsessed with them. Neither Camille or Jude quite knows what to think about Wanda Ann. The punishments she says were dished out to kids at her previous school, Aucilla Hall, seem too appalling to be true. Surely she is making stuff up—right? But Camille and Jude sense something weird is going on when Wanda Ann is seen taking money from Dr. Hedstrom. Piece by piece, the clues fall into place—but will it be in time to prevent tragedy from befalling the most vulnerable of Talbot Hall?

Matturro and Koespel artfully develop all the key elements of a horrifying thriller in Wayward Girls. The eerie atmosphere lingers like an unforgettable nightmare, an especially haunting one, considering the dedication indicates the story, while fictional, is based on real schools in Texas and Florida, with some of the most appalling events taken directly from official transcripts.

Matturro is the author of the award-winning Lilly Belle Cleary series set on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where she currently resides with her husband. She regularly contributes to Southern Literary Review and Compulsive Reader. She has been a newspaper reporter, lawyer, and taught law at Florida State University College of Law and as a visiting professor at the University of Oregon School of Law.

With lifelong dreams of becoming a writer, Koepsel has worked in community mental health centers and as a school psychologist. She lives in Texas with her husband. The Matturro-Koepsel collaboration has produced a compelling novel, one worthy of wide readership and a lasting place on bookshelves.

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