BLURB: 1996. Freya Seymour and Josephine Grey are invincible – beautiful and brilliant, the two best friends are on the cusp of Oxbridge, and the success they always dreamed they’d share.
2014. Freya gets in touch, looking for a conversation Josephine has run away from for eighteen long and tortured years.
Beginning with one ill-fated night, The Exclusives charts the agonising spiral of friendship gone wrong, the heartache and betrayal of letting down those closest to you and the poisonous possibilities of what we wouldn’t do when everything we prize is placed under threat.
And in the end, as she realises she cannot run for ever, Josephine must answer one question: is it Freya she cannot face, or is it her own darkest secret?
The Exclusives is Rebecca Thornton’s powerful debut novel about friendship and tragedy at an exclusive boarding school.
The Exclusives, the debut novel by Rachel Thornton, another alumni of the Faber Academy, is the story of two best friends, Josephine and Freya. Their fathers grew up as best friends, and encouraged the girls to have a similar relationship. There are no mother figures on the scene – Josephine’s mother has succumbed to severe mental illness (and her daughter was terrified it would be genetic), and Freya’s mother had died of cancer 3 or 4 years previously, and she has a brother, Leon.
The book moves well between 1996, their final school year, and 2014, when Josephine, now an archaeologist working in Jordan, gets an e-mail from Freya, asking if they can meet, despite an 18-year gap in contact. Initially Josephine puts her off, seeing no point in digging up the past (ironic for an archaeologist!) But she eventually decides to bite the bullet, as she is so stressed at not knowing what Freya wants to say she’s making herself ill. It seems easier to get it over with rather than keep torturing herself indefinitely.
Now, I don’t know any of your family backgrounds, and you don’t much about me, except what I say on the blog, but I very much doubt many of us, if any, could relate to the world these girls live in. Josephine’s father is Permanent Secretary, and spends all his time with “the PM”, and has to dash off when his phone rings, and is almost always abroad when his daughter is home from school. Trying to help fix the country is more important than fixing his own family. As a result, she has a room at Rollo’s (Freya’s dad, who also does something very Establishment and lucrative), and it’s her second home.
One night, on their last “exeat” (which appears to mean a weekend at home – there are lots of such strange school names for things! No tuck, though!), the girls decide to have a wild night out in London. It’s a last hurrah, as when they return the prefects, of which Verity is one, Deputy Head Girl, Verity Green space, Josephine’s nemesis, and Head Girl Josephine (who’s also magazine editor) are expected to act as an example to the other girls. They’re hugely prestigious and responsible positions, as well as aiding university applications. So they head out to a club, and the night is certainly wild…
Problems start the very next day when they react differently about the night’s events: one wants to bury her head in the sand, and forget everything that happened; the other feels talking it over would be more therapeutic and certainly make her feel better. They part on bad terms – but one of the girls doesn’t realise how angry her old friend is. So the big gossip once they’re back at school is, Freya and Josephine have fallen out. And Freya’s new best friend? Verity, Josephine’s main rival academically, and for the Anne Dunne Scholarship. This guarantees entry at Oxford without all the usual interviews, assuming the required exam results are attained.
After that, we have – at last – the real page-turning portion of the novel – revenge, recriminations, sexual accusations – which are possibly ruinous. But who was responsible? And have they covered their back – completely? There’s a wonderful nail-biting scene, featuring a school meeting amongst the possible guilty parties, their parents, and some of the staff…I was literally cringing for the character! Yet she was still, desperately, in her head, trying to find a way out. For her, the possibility of failure just did not exist. Possibly as it had never happened to her before.
Then it’s to 2014, and the first meeting between the former best friends in eighteen years. Who knows exactly what? What are each’s intentions? Will one end up seeking revenge on the other? It does take quite a while to get to this point, but it’s easy to keep turning the pages, as the prose was nicely straightforward, and felt like a – highly intelligent – teenager’s mind. The author presumably knows this world well. If I had a criticism, it was that the girls were taught they only had one shot at academic success, and there are no second chances in life, which is a dreadful message to pass on to girls at such a vulnerable and psychologically intense time of their life. Most of the responsibility for that appears to lie at the door of parents’, and the school. You can see that it wouldn’t be impossible to crack under the pressure.
So I think I’ll revise my dreams of the Chalet School (my personal favourite fictional boarding school) – if this is what boarding school does to children/teenagers, they can keep them!
Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks, whose review I’ve just read, and you can link to there, commented on the excellent releases from Twenty 7, a relatively new imprint from the Bonnier Group which concentrates on debut novels. They also publish then in e-book format a few months before the paperback is released. I wouldn’t have thought to mention it myself, but she’s right – the Twenty 7 novels I’ve read have all been of an excellent standard, so kudos to them for that! (And to Cleo for pointing it out!)
PS I did wonder if Rebecca Thornton is an alumni of Oxford, as it was the only university mentioned, apart from someone saying “Oxbridge” once!
Very enjoyable (and made me glad I was no longer a teenager!)
The Exclusives was released on e-book on December 10th, £4.74, and will be available in paperback in April, £7.99.