The Plot: Jane Williams has been in the foster system since she was six. Following the unnecessary death of her best friend, Jane decides she wants more for her future than what she sees around her and throws herself into studying. It pays off when she is accepted to Birch Grove Academy her junior year.
Jane is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, thrust into a world of privilege. To her surprise, her fellow students are welcoming and accepting. Mrs. Radcliffe, the headmistress of the school, invites Jane to her home and introduces her to her two wildly different sons: scruffy musician Jake and golden haired Lucien.
Something isn’t quite right. The previous scholarship student, Bebe, dropped out of school and hasn’t been in touch with her friends. The school nurse killed herself. Jake says cryptic things; Lucien is sometimes friendly, sometimes not. Is Jane right to worry? Or, as an orphan, does she not have the right context to understand this world of friendships and family?
Jane is right to worry. She’s been brought to Birch Grove for a purpose. The world is even darker than she imagined.
The Good: When I began reading this (boarding school with spooky overtones), I immediately thought of such Lois Duncan classics as Down a Dark Hall and Daughters of Eve. Teen Gothic? Teen Gothic done well? Delicious! I sank into the book with pure pleasure, enjoying Jane discovering the world of Birch Grove, picking up on the dark undertones and whispers of things not being quite right. Jane made friends, had a crush on Lucien, tries to figure out what happened to Bebe, and I just loved every second of it. Who was a real friend? Who was fake? What dark things were going on at Birch Grove? I narrowed my guesses down to — No, I won’t tell you. That would be cheating. But it’s really hard, because what it turns out to be is so perfect for this book, and so perfectly part of the book.
Jane is a terrific mix of tough and vulnerable, smart and naive. Here she is on why she is at school: “It was rage that got me to Birch Grove Academy for Girls and out of Hellsdale. I nestled into my bed, knowing that rage would help me survive here, too.” Jane may know the way of the streets, but families are alien territory. What I liked about Jane is how her background impacts her; for example, one of the first thing she does when she settles into her own home (which is a cute little cottage I would love to live in!), is to find a place to hide those things that are important to her. When Mrs. Radcliffe takes her on a shopping trip so that Jane is ready for school, Jane returns half the clothes and pockets the money, putting it in with her secret stash. She’s a foster child who has to hide what is important to her, and who has to be always ready to run.
Also! Before I forget! This book also is funny. One of Jane’s new friends is Mary Violet, and I adored her, because she had such a way of looking at the world — she just cracked me up. It got to the point where just seeing MV’s name appear on the page made me smile. MV does this thing with mangling translations of French words that is just perfect. “She has that je ne sais quoi. That’s French for, “I’m totally clueless.” MV’s wit is quick: “Embrace your flaws. I would if I had any.” Or, “It’s in one of those M months, March or May. Maybe Mebruary or Maugust.” Jane needs a MV in her life; but hey, we all do.
Jane is at Birch Grove for reasons that have nothing to do with how well she does in chemistry class. She is faced with some interesting choices; choices about trust, but also about herself and what she wants. At one point, I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her and say “what are you doing?! LOOK AT YOUR CHOICES.” I was so frustrated with Jane, but then I remembered who Jane was. A child without parents; without any memory of her dead mother; raised in some of the worst situations possible. OF COURSE she is going to have her own needs, her own dark desires, that those raised in a healthy family would not have. Like I said, Jane was brought to Birch Grove. Part of the reason is not just that she is an orphan with no relatives; it’s that she has the types of needs that can be used or manipulated by others. Who would think that the desire for family, for friends, for belonging, could be twisted and manipulated?
I won’t comment on the romance, except, yes, it involves the two very different brothers. I don’t want to give anything away, sorry!
I was so swept away by the Gothic (aided by wonder epigraphs at the start of each chapter, taken from various early Gothic books), that I missed the most obvious thing in the world. Dark Companion is a spin (a wildly delicious supernatural paranormal spin) on Jane Eyre. Once I realized (and by “realized” I mean, “read a blog post at the author’s website“), I was doubly impressed with Dark Companion.