The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry, 368 pp, RL 5

With The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, Julie Berry creates a masterfully crafted Victorian setting (Berry's author's note at the end of the book is just as entertaining as the book itself) and populates it with intriguing, independent minded young ladies, adding layers of farce and mystery to create a book you won't be able to put down. Set in the cathedral city of Ely, Cambridgeshire in 1890, St. Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies on Prickwillow Road has seven pupils with wonderfully descriptive names. There is Dear Roberta, sent away to school by her jealous new stepmother. Disgraceful Mary Jane is what we would call boy crazy today and has been sent to Ely to keep her from eloping with the wrong kind of boy. Dull Martha and Stout Alice have more to offer than the descriptives they have been labeled with. Smooth Kitty, the child of a business mogul who had been hoping for a male heir, has a mind like a steel trap, if only her father would notice. Pocked Louise was cured of small pox at the age of eight by her uncle, a great surgeon and mentor to her, has been sent to school to discourage her scientific leanings. And, Dour Elinor has an abiding interest in the funereal industry. When Headmistress Plackett and her odious brother Aldous Godding are poisoned during the Sunday meal, each of the seven pupils has a skill that comes into play.

With the daily domestic woman Amanda Barnes off for the Sabbath and just the seven girls in the house, Smooth Kitty puts a plan into action. The girls will run the school and pretend to be Mrs. Plackett, as needed. Of course, they will have to dispose of the bodies of the headmistress and her brother, as well. There are somewhat gruesome moments in The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, but they are more than outnumbered by hilarious and poignant situations. Of course the girls can't keep up the sham, even if Stout Alice does fit perfectly into Mrs. Plackett's clothes and can imitate her voice, and Berry creates one sticky situation after another, from a raft of guests arriving for a surprise birthday party for Aldous to an elderly neighbor who twists her ankle and insists on spending the night at the school, sharing a bed with the dead Mrs. Plackett. In between these awkward passages, the girls work desperately to figure out who the murderer is, uncovering one curiosity after the next while also dealing with break ins, thefts, a new puppy (unfortunately and comically named Aldous) and the strawberry social, which Alice, acting as Mrs. Plackett, commits to attending.

One of the things I loved most about The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, besides the characters, setting and story, is the way that things started to fall apart immediately for the sisterhood. Of course seven girls can't run a school and pretend like their headmistress is still alive, even in 1890 when crimes and disappearances were much harder to solve. You know that the girls are going to be found out, but you just read on, hoping that they will find the murderer and maybe even save their school before this happens. Berry wraps up her story marvelously with a very satisfying and much hoped for ending. 

Source: Purchased Audio Book
Narrated by Jane Entwhistle

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