MADAM by Phoebe Wynne
St. Martin’s Press, 2021
Mamma mia where do I begin.
Despite having a deliciously enticing premise, Madam fails on just about every level. Set at the fictional Scottish all girls’ boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, Madam introduces Rose, a bright young ingenue of a teacher who gets a job as the head of Caldonbrae’s Classics department — notably and oddly, she’s the school’s first outside hire in over a decade. She arrives at Caldonbrae and quickly discerns that there is fuckery afoot.
The entire function of Rose’s character is to unearth the fuckery. There is so little interiority to her character that there is never a sense that she is a real person living this experience; she is transparently a thriller protagonist bumbling around chasing clues, and she does an agonizingly terrible job at it. Every time a character starts to reveal something and then realizes they’ve said too much, Rose lets it go — quite the impressive regard for boundaries, given the fact that when she isn’t walking away from people mid-conversation, she’s asking everyone and their mother impertinent questions that go nowhere. This is, quite literally, the entire book. The fuckery is, of course, eventually unearthed, and yes, it was indeed the most obvious explanation that you guessed by page 50, but anyway, what happens at this point in the book? Rose actually takes the fate of her students into her own hands? She allies with someone to bring about systemic change? She realizes resistance is futile and makes a plan to get the hell out of Dodge? No, she basically just… asks more questions. More specific questions, this time around, to be fair to her.
Anyway, I mentioned briefly that Rose is a Classics teacher, so let’s go back to that. Having been raised by a second-wave feminist, Rose has internalized a lot of her mother’s values (she wouldn’t go as far as to call herself a feminist though, heaven forfend! Sidebar: I’m not sure that in 2021 we still need novels that spoon-feed feminist ideology to the reader by adding a spoonful of sugar to the medicine, holding our hand and reassuring us that “women are people too” isn’t a radical, scary notion, but… Phoebe Wynne disagrees, I guess). Anyway, Rose is drawn to female characters and historical figures from Greek and Roman mythology and history, and spotlights a handful of them — Antigone, Dido, Medea, Lucretia, et al. — in her classes. The integration of classics into this novel is so ham-fisted, so unsubtle, so unnecessary, it bears asking why it had to be the classics at all. The Secret History (a very different project with very different aims that I am not attempting to compare to Madam on a deeper level, to be clear) would not be The Secret History if it were about a group of chemical engineering students — the classics are so integral to that novel’s themes and framework that it would crumble without that element. If We Were Villains would not be If We Were Villains if the students were studying Jane Austen instead of Shakespeare. This isn’t a criticism; it shows how deliberately constructed those novels are. In Madam, the classics are merely an arbitrary addition that could have been substituted with impactful women from any period of literature or history and netted the exact same result: a half-baked commentary on how History Has Not Been Kind To Women.
Aside from being thematically careless, this book was just poorly written on a sentence-by-sentence level. Inexplicably, most scenes are recounted in the pluperfect tense:
“Earlier that morning she’d knotted her unruly hair into a thick plait[…]”
“Rose had gazed at the delightful picture they all made, touching her own blazer with a tinge of shame.”
“She’d stopped by Anthony’s office on Friday to see if he wanted to go for a walk together over the weekend.”
Why? Why are we being narrated scenes that already happened rather than just… being shown those scenes? The whole thing takes on a very tell-don’t-show style, which I believe can work in certain circumstances, but this ain’t it. Also, the details in this book are all in the wrong places. It’s set at a boarding school, and the school itself is barely described — we are usually up to date on the state of Rose’s hair, though. I also think it should be a cardinal sin for a book to start with a journey (in this case: Rose on the train to Caldonbrae), end the chapter when they arrive, and start the following chapter the next morning. We don’t see Rose settling into her flat, we don’t see her walking around the school, we don’t see any of it. The exposition is just terrible. Characters are also introduced at such a lightning speed that I couldn’t keep track of who anyone was and I had no sense of how many students or teachers were at this school.
Changing gears now: as other reviewers have noted, the white saviorism and the tokenistic portrayal of a group of Japanese students is downright shameful. Diversity does not need to serve a narrative function, and indeed, it’s often better when it does not, especially in the hands of a white author writing about non-white characters. Here, the function is both extant and obvious: it’s to illustrate by comparison how progressive Rose is. And I quote:
“The general spread of white faces made Rose uncomfortable despite the small handful of Asian girls, who seemed to group together. This lack of diversity leaked across the staff, too — not at all appropriate or modern for the nineties, she thought.”
Speaking of diversity and representation, I’m not sure why some people are calling this book queer? It’s not. There is one (1) lesbian character, not the protagonist, and she’s a self-loathing alcoholic, so… not sure why that’s something to celebrate, but whatever.
Anyway, back to the above quote, gross depiction of Japanese students aside — this book is set in the 1990s. That sweet spot for dark academia novels, where authors have the convenience of writing virtually about the present-day, but where the characters don’t have cell phones and laptops which would destroy both the atmosphere and undermine the characters’ work at solving the mystery. That’s all fine and well, but if you take out all the references to Queen and Batman Begins, this book feels like something out of the 1800s. You will hear no disputes from me about the fact that misogyny is alive and well and that certain individuals and institutions hold antiquated values, but those conservative values are satirized to such an extreme here that they start to feel utterly absurd. And the problem is that this book is not trying to be satire. I’m supposed to take it at face value, even when it’s pushing my suspension of disbelief further and further past its breaking point.
Which brings us to The Fuckery. As discussed, I found it very obvious, but that is honestly the least of my damn concerns. The details here were just… so, so ridiculous, trying so hard to be provocative. The “Worship” scene (if you know you know) is the most unintentionally funny thing I have read in my entire life. This was supposed to be a horrifying scene and I just couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that someone actually greenlit this garbage. I could practically see Phoebe Wynne rubbing her hands together in glee for having shocked the reader with something so DARING and TABOO when it actually just served to undermine the impact of whatever psychological abuse was going on here by turning the whole thing into a dark, fucked up cartoonish pantomime.
This was just an incoherent, poorly-constructed project that had no ardor, no artistic integrity, and no intrigue. It was bizarrely terrible and did not have a single redeeming quality and it made me feel cynical about my profession (I’m an editor) and if you take anything from this review let it be this: read literally any other book! Please! I don’t care how good the summary is! I suffered so you don’t have to!!!
Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.