Audiobook review: Madam by Phoebe Wynne

I might have had unrealistic expectations after seeing this book compared to Rebecca and The Handmaid’s Tale, both books that I adore. It’s not that I disliked Madam—I actually liked it—but I don’t think those are good comparisons.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

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.

A darkly feminist tale pitched against a haunting backdrop, and populated by an electrifying cast of heroines, Madam will keep readers engrossed until the breathtaking conclusion.

My thoughts

There are some things about Madam that I think were very well done. Wynne has definitely nailed that gothic vibe, and the setting is vividly described. A boarding school in remote Scotland, literally hanging on a craggy shore where fog and storms are regular, and something is clearly not right? Couldn’t get enough of that atmospheric writing. Our main character, Rose, is a classics teacher and I loved the sprinkling throughout this book of stories of some of the women from Greek mythology, and the decidedly feminist tilt the author has put on the whole thing.

Rose—Madam, if you please—is not a very likable character, and I don’t think that was the intent. She never really gets a backbone, and it was frustrating to not have a heroine where I think one was needed. Things happen and she sort of coasts along, and while her circumstances are definitely not great, it doesn’t feel realistic that she would just continue to take things without resisting a little more. Or that this sort of school would still exist in the 1990s. Or that so many parents would send their daughters there. The ending was also a little abrupt and a lot confusing.

I do think this is a promising debut and look forward to more books by this author. I listened to the audiobook, which is very well narrated by Nathalie Buscombe. Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for my copy in exchange for this honest review.


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