18 January 2016

Oxford or Bust — The Exclusives Review

Rebecca Thornton’s wickedly compelling debut novel, The Exclusives, set in an elite girls’ boarding school where a B grade at A-level is unforgivable and an Oxbridge rejection is a total failure, is a well-observed examination of the themes of ambition, friendship and betrayal.

Josephine Grey, a 30-something archaeologist has run away from her troubled past to work in Jordan. She isn’t happy, exactly, but she is fine — until she receives an email from her former best friend Freya who will be in the area and who desperately wants to talk to Josephine in person. 

Increasingly apprehensive about what Freya might want, Josephine looks back 18 years to the start of the girls’ final year at Greenwood Hall, which is when their friendship began to fall apart. Josephine beats out her rival Verity to the Head Girl position, wearing her shiny red badge with pride, but Freya insists that the two of them go out for one last night of fun and freedom before term proper begins and with it the Oxford applications, school newspaper editing and other more tedious duties.

The morning after their wild night on the town, Josephine wakes up with a wound to the back of her head and no recollection of what happened. Freya wants to talk about it but Josephine shuts her down, worried that if word gets out about any nights out involving drinking, drugs and dancing, she will be stripped of her head girl badge and all of her dreams of Oxford will be forever lost. Some may consider that these concerns — “what if they find out I was drinking?” and “what will become of me if I don’t get into Oxbridge?” — rather trivial but as someone who attended a somewhat similar school, I thought they rang perfectly true. 

An increasingly anxious Freya begins to ditch Josephine for Verity and tensions heighten as the three girls compete for a scholarship that offers a guaranteed Oxford place — more valuable than gold dust to these girls. Gradually, as Josephine's narration progresses in both the present-day and the flashbacks, we begin to piece together what happened that year and what impacts it had. The final revelation, while disturbing, wasn’t as surprising as it could have been, resulting in a slightly weakened denouement.

But the friendship between Josephine and Freya, which remains at the novel’s core, is convincing and poignant throughout. The two girls represent the classic Betty–Veronica / Serena–Blair dichotomy: the sweet, beautiful golden girl (Freya) and the intelligent, driven schemer (Josephine). Both appear to be vastly privileged but each has had troubled a troubled family life. Josephine, in particular, is often unlikeable, in spite of the hardships she has endured and the betrayals she perceives, but is a complex and well-developed character. Freya remains more of a cipher, but, of course, we only ever see her through Josephine’s watchful eyes.

The Exclusives is a real page-turner — Thornton has written a lively, smart, twisty and often twisted tale. 

Disclaimer: The Exclusives, published by Twenty7/Bonnier Publishing, is available as an e-book now and will be out in paperback in April. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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