So, I wasn’t going to write a review of this book. But I finished it over a week ago and can’t stop thinking about a few key issues. I’ve read other reviews – both negative and positive – and am a little miffed to find that no one else seems to have latched onto something I find to be an incredibly problematic part of the story.
Prepare yourself for a bit of a rant, and a lot of former psych major hypotheizing. This was a novel that I didn’t enjoy in the end, for a number of reasons, but it will certainly stick with me, and unfortunately, not in a good way.
First: I chose A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee because the theme for my book club last month was academia, and I figured dark academia was much more interesting, and this book seemed to have it all – troubled student returning to elite boarding school after traumatic incident, shadow of rumors of ghosts and Salem witches, secretive cliques, and prodigy author researching her next book on creepy campus. Ah, yes.
Well. Not quite.
The story begins with a flowing, erudite, compelling style that successfully introduces the narrator, Felicity, and her tale of woe; following a tragic mountain climbing accident, her best friend is dead, and while there’s only circumstantial evidence, rumors abound that it was murder. Dun, dun, dun!
Combine this with the legend of mysterious, unexplainable deaths among former students who were supposedly witches (oooooooh), and with a new enrollee being a prodigy bestselling teen author who wants to research this mystery for her next publication – while not believing in the witchcraft aspect for a second – and Felicity growing rather unsure what’s reality and what’s her PTSD, all of it comes together for a very atmospheric Gothic-esque tale.
Now, while remaining as spoiler-free as possible (and that’ll be tricky, but I swear I’m trying here), as we proceed further into the story, there are more and more hints to the Big Reveal, and honestly, everything’s going swimmingly – until the narration starts twisting back on itself to become unreliable.
Here begins my literary-quality rant for this book and on this ploy in general: Unreliable narrators do NOTHING beneficial for the story, or for the reader. I don’t mean when you realize the person you hoped wasn’t the murderer is, indeed, the culprit. I’m talking about when writers spends 100, even 200, possibly even 300 pages building trust between themselves and the readers – only to turn around and throw all of that away (generally in the vein of pouring a ton of gasoline to the established relationship and aiming a blow torch at it), by revealing that, in fact, the character you’ve been sympathizing with is a certified grade-A psychopath.
So, without sharing any details on what actually happens in A Lesson in Vengeance, I will say, definitively, that although I was truly enjoying the story – the flow, the tone, the building of the plot – until a little more than halfway, when it all came crashing down for me, it crashed so hard, I’m the one with the matches now.
On to the psych major rant portion of this post:
A million years ago, before I became a spouse and a parent, I wanted to major in psychology, and eventually work with at-risk children or something similar. Therefore, I have taken several classes in the overlapping subjects, and am informed enough to be able to determine when the mental health/mental health treatment rep in YA fiction is problematic. And oh, boy, is A Lesson in Vengeance one for that category.
I don’t think the author did any actual research on what the symptoms of PTSD following a traumatic incident are; Felicity doesn’t really act like someone who was so shaken by a friend’s accidental death that she was, in fact, committed to an institution. There are no scenes describing behavior or actions that would have pushed Felicity’s mother to arrange for the commitment. We certainly get the idea Felicity is depressed, and anxious, but it seems much more at going back to school, knowing everyone is whispering about her. When Felicity wonders if the ghosts of the witches are haunting her, it’s much more because of sudden bumps in the night and little unexplained – coincidental? – things. And Felicity’s guilt, and her apparent belief that she deserves to be haunted, is used as the reason for all of her jumpiness. The later explanation is that Felicity feels guilty because she and her best friend were arguing, and had been drinking, when the latter fell from a great height – and, yes, this would be extremely difficult to reconcile with oneself. However. Wouldn’t most people decide returning to the same school – with all the memories, especially the terrible ones – was just plain a bad idea? Even most fictional people? Wouldn’t most people with a psychotic diagnosis not be allowed to go back to their pre-trauma lives, with little supervision – no, I don’t care that Felicity’s mother is filthy rich and that’s “why” she gets to return to an average teen existence – seriously, doesn’t the psychiatrist have a say in this?!
So, the stage is set through most of the story that Felicity is a “misunderstood” young woman suffering from grief. And then the author throws in some very disturbing twists regarding other characters that make the reader question everything.
Again, no more details, for anyone who wants to read for themselves.
But I can’t recommend this title in good conscience, because of how irresponsible it is with the discussion – or lack of – around mental health. Yes, treating survivors of trauma with compassion is right and absolutely helpful. But ignoring unprovoked violent tendencies and hallucinations (both of which Felicity admits to) are the total opposite. The author claiming that Felicity was all but implicated in a murder and just released back into the world because “her mother’s filthy rich” doesn’t fly in the 21st century. In fact, given the family’s financial status, it’s MUCH more likely that Felicity would have been kept in a private residence, with a live-in therapist on hand, and that her treatment would have been swept under the rug, so no one at the school gossiped about the crazy girl who killed somebody.
And when Felicity does return to campus, she gets involved with Ellis, the “prodigy author”, who is, clearly nothing but a toxic, gaslighting, deeply disturbed individual from the first page of her introduction. If the author had taken a different turn in writing the girls’ developing bond, if Lee had capitalized on the opportunity to highlight the troubles of toxic friendships – especially for adolescents – then I might have felt differently about big chunks of the plot. Might. Too much else was already set up to go in the wrong direction.
I also didn’t like the way the legend of the witches was used as a scapegoat – of course Felicity would think she saw a ghost because of all the stories about the school’s past. Of course there would be secret meetings where the current students tried to emulate whatever debacherous activities the “witches” engaged in. (Not at most boarding schools, I imagine.) The line between what’s real and what’s not about the suspected witches is constantly blurred as well, and the author seems to keep coming back to it only to insist there was no way these girls were anything but smart women in an age when smart women were demonized. While there is a lot of evidence from the Salem witch trials to support this theory, to passively take this perspective only muddies the plot waters further. There are plenty of books and movies that have used this topic as a premise, and the individual tales have either concretely said: A) Yes, the witches were real, and using good magic is how you defeat them; or B) No, none of it is real, and the “hauntings” were staged by nefarious humans trying to gain something or cover up a crime. Victoria Lee never completely determines if the Dalloway Five were actually witches or not, and her being so wishy-washy about what, the dust jacket insisted, was a big part of the story, really grated on me.
And in the end, the title itself was a misnomer – there was no clear answer as to who sought vengeance, for what, why someone needed to receive it. Maybe it was because a murder really did take place? But again, since no one still living knew about it, who would be after revenge?
I will admit, the most dramatic twist towards the end made me wonder if that was where the title came from. (And, yes, it’s almost impossible, but I did promise no spoilers!) Though, at 25 pages from the final scene, I found that concept rather difficult to hinge an entire plot on. Unless the author always intended to write the tale in this sort of backwards way…
Ugh. My brain hurts.
I guess what I learned from this experience is: I shouldn’t read thrillers. Or dark academia. Or bad mental health rep. Or any fiction about the Salem witch trials.
Or, maybe, authors should just learn to write better about these subjects.