Thursday, May 6, 2021

Review: Madam by Phoebe Wynne

Madam by Phoebe Wynne
St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: May 18th, 2021
Hardcover. 352 pages.

About Madam:

"For 150 years, high above rocky Scottish cliffs, Caldonbrae Hall has sat untouched, a beacon of excellence in an old ancestral castle. A boarding school for girls, it promises that the young women lucky enough to be admitted will emerge “resilient and ready to serve society.”
Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie: a 26-year-old Classics teacher, Caldonbrae’s new head of the department, and the first hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose is overwhelmed to be invited into this institution, whose prestige is unrivaled. But she quickly discovers that behind the school’s elitist veneer lies an impenetrable, starkly traditional culture that she struggles to reconcile with her modernist beliefs—not to mention her commitment to educating “girls for the future.”
It also doesn’t take long for Rose to suspect that there’s more to the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor—a woman whose ghost lingers everywhere—than anyone is willing to let on. In her search for this mysterious former teacher, Rose instead uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, forcing her to confront the true extent of the school’s nefarious purpose, and her own role in perpetuating it."

Madam is a hard book to review. There were a lot of great elements in this book, but there were also quite a few that didn't work for me, and I think this is going to be a fairly polarizing read for most people. I'd also like to include a brief content warning for some elements in this book that could be difficult to read, such as discussions of consent concerning underage girls/pedophilia, grooming, and child abuse.
Madam tells a story about Rose, a young Classics teacher who has recently accepted a position as head of Classics at Caldonbrae Hall, a rather mysterious girls' boarding school that is known for being exceptionally prestigious--though much else about it remains a mystery. When Rose arrives at Caldonbrae, she is slowly introduced and inducted into a world that she couldn't have ever expected to encounter.
As a Classicist, I always jump at the chance for any Classics-related elements, and I also love books set at boarding schools, so this book was a no-brainer for me to pick up. I really appreciated the snippets of Rose's lessons about ancient Greek and Roman women, as I felt they were really carefully and well done, and I also appreciated the occasional chapters that included an except in the original Latin or Greek and a summary of the person who is mentioned (i.e. Medea, Dido, etc.).
Wynne did a great job of creating a rather dark and mysterious atmosphere. There was definitely a sense of foreboding the entire time, and there was no doubt that something was about this school, even though it wasn't entirely clear at first what it was (though it quickly became apparent to me, which I will discuss). The characters were incredibly secretive and, like Rose, I knew we weren't getting the full story from anyone. Another area Wynne excelled at was in developing important, difficult discussions about topics that can be a bit sensitive. I can't really dive into too many specifics without spoiling the story, so I'll say that this book helped me to stop and have my own internal debates about what is right or wrong, how consent works, and who is able to give consent.
All that being said in the positive, I did have quite a few issues with this book, most noticeably with the characters, pacing, and storytelling. My first issue was with the characters and the fact that, outside of Rose, they all felt rather flat and similar to one another. There are a variety of girls and age ranges that Rose teaches, but each one sounded fairly similar to the other when speaking, and I'm not sure I ever really was able to accurately remember who was who outside of a select few characters. I had similar issues with some of Rose's fellow teachers who seemed to have similar dialogue styles and spoke very similarly. Perhaps having the characters and teachers seem nearly the same was meant to be a literary technique to show just how this school affected each and every person, but in doing so it just made it hard for me to really connect with or care about many of the characters.
My other issues with the pacing and storytelling go hand in hand, and much of the problem has to do with the inconsistent pacing. There were times when this book felt like it was moving at a pretty steady pace and I found myself fully engaged, but then it just seemed to keep dragging on and replaying the same general ideas over and over. It's not that I didn't enjoy the story, but I just felt as though it got stuck in a few places and didn't tell the story progression in the most effective manner. I also found the entire twist/reveal of the novel a bit predictable, which isn't the worst thing, but I feel like a lot of the book hinged on that and I was just waiting for Rose to catch up. Perhaps it was willful ignorance until she simply couldn't ignore it anymore--I certainly wouldn't blame her for that! I also felt that some of the messages were a bit crossed at times, and I was left feeling a little unsure what to think, but it did match the sort of morally grey atmosphere.
Overall, I've given Madam 3.25 stars! This book was a bit bizarre, but for all that I still found myself enjoying it and having a hard time putting it down. I just had to know how Rose was going to handle each situation, even if it was hard to read. I look forward to reading more from Phoebe Wynne!
 *I received a copy of Madam courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.* 

Buy the book: Amazon | IndieBound


  1. I've really been curious about this, but I think I'd have issues with the same elements that didn't work for you. Although any story about mysterious boarding schools is so tempting!

  2. I've been curious about this one as well because of its title, so I appreciate your review here. I'll add it to my TBR, although I think the inconsistent pacing and flat characters will annoy me at times when I start to read.

  3. I think you nailed it. The book veers between spooky and 2D characters, and as you say it’s difficult to tell one from the other. But definitely worth a read.