Amy Goldschlager Reviews Girls with Sharp Sticks Audiobook by Suzanne Young

Girls with Sharp Sticks, Suzanne Young; Caitlin Davies, narrator (Simon & Schuster Audio/Black­stone Audio 978-1-50828140-5, $39.99, 9 CDs, 10.5 hr., unabridged [also available as a digital download]) March 2019.

I hesitate to mention just which classic early 1970s book, adapted into a well-known film and a bad remake, and now an indelible part of our popular culture, that this new YA novel reminds me of, because it’ll spoil the plot twist; but let’s face it, you’ll figure out the basic outline fairly early on.

Philomena Rhodes attends Innovations Acad­emy, which is supposedly an elite academic in­stitution that only accepts the very best girls, but it’s actually a viciously controlling charm school to the most violent extreme. Students live on un­sweetened oatmeal, salads, and green juice and go running to stay thin and fit, while their out-of-shape male professors gorge themselves in front of the girls. The students fix their hair and makeup according to specifications that maximally enhance their looks. “Classes” are in manners and social graces intended to put a polish on firmly enforced subservience. The so-called “vitamins” they take every night probably don’t contain too many nutrients, and any behavior deviation will send a girl to “impulse control therapy,” which all of the students dread but can never remember afterwards.

Star student Philomena doesn’t seem to have much trouble complying with these restrictions, except for an occasional forbidden purchase of sweets, but then her curiosity starts to get her in trouble. She wonders what will happen to her after graduation, when the men (who know best) will determine her future. Why don’t her parents ever accept her calls or visit during open houses? What are the strange memory flashes she has? What happens in the lab in the basement? And just what is impulse control therapy? With the help of a young man she unexpectedly encounters during a field trip and her fellow students, whom she loves and seeks desperately to save along with herself, Philomena falters both toward the truth and a sense of independence.

Caitlin Davies’s sweet, determined voice is perfect for Philomena’s intelligent but incredibly naïve perspective. The pacing might seem slow to listeners who will figure out and strongly object to Philomena’s predicament long before she will, but author Suzanne Young has a purpose to her patient pace, and ultimately, there’s a creepy fascination in how long it takes the girls to rebel, and frankly, how bad they are at it. It’s almost impossible for them to break out of the habits and behaviors the school programs into them and so rigidly reinforces – which of course is a major clue to what’s really going on here.

This is the first in a series, and I’m definitely curious about where the author plans to take this.

This review and more like it in the July 2019 issue of Locus.

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