Book Review

The Hawthorne School

The Hawthorne School

  • Author: Sylvie Perry
  • Genre: Mystery/Thriller
  • Publication Date: December 7, 2021
  • Publisher: Dreamscape Media

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ALC of this audiobook. I am offering my honest opinion voluntarily.

CONTENT WARNING: drugging, addiction, murder, suicide

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For fans of Riley Sager, The Hawthorne School is a twisty psychological suspense about the lengths one mother will go for her child, inspired by present-day obsession with cults and true crime.

Claudia Morgan is overwhelmed. She’s a single parent trying the best that she can, but her four-year-old son, Henry, is a handful–for her and for his preschool. When Claudia hears about a school with an atypical teaching style near her Chicagoland home, she has to visit. The Hawthorne School is beautiful and has everything she dreams of for Henry: time to play outside, music, and art. The head of the school, Zelma, will even let Claudia volunteer to cover the cost of tuition.

The school is good for Henry: his “behavioral problems” disappear, and he comes home subdued instead of rageful. But there’s something a bit off about the school, its cold halls, and its enigmatic headmistress. When Henry brings home stories of ceremonies in the woods and odd rules, Claudia’s instincts tell her that something isn’t quite right, and she begins to realize she’s caught in a web of manipulations and power.

The author’s work as a psychotherapist, with a focus on narcissistic manipulation and addictive power dynamics, guides this exploration of a young mother wanting to do the best for her child.

I grew up being told to be wary of something that looks too good to be true. And it felt like the main character, Claudia, would have done well to hear that as well. But … this book really showed how people can get sucked into a cult so easily. 

Claudia is a single mother, alone in the world after her mother passed away, and struggling to raise a difficult child. Her son, Henry, struggles with behavioral issues both at home and at school, She doesn’t have a lot of support, and isn’t in contact with Henry’s father. So when her neighbor reaches out and welcomes her, it seems like a good start for Claudia. And when Henry’s teacher mentions that he might fit in better at the mysterious Hawthorne School, Claudia starts to consider it. Especially when she sees how much it helps her new friend’s daughter. The only problem is the cost.

But when she’s given an incredible opportunity to offset the cost of tuition by volunteering at this amazing school, Claudia jumps at the chance. Henry starts responding positively almost immediately, and Claudia is thrilled at how well everything seems to be going. Except … not everyone is as supportive of this change. And this is where alarm bells started to go off for me. Unfortunately, Claudia didn’t notice them. It’s a lot like an abusive relationship — first you see only the great side of it, then you slowly get cut off from various supportive relationships until you’re completely isolated, and then when you realize how much trouble you are in, it’s too late and you have little to no resources available to escape. And watching it happen to Claudia in slow motion was horrible. 

The slow buildup of events, watching Claudia get sucked in, and seeing the children used as leverage, before finally realizing the terrifying vision that this school stood for was masterfully done. Claudia, while she was fairly easy to empathize with, was also a little stubborn and completely unwilling to see notice anything that was right in front of her eyes. Even when it was directly pointed out to her. Even though I could kind of tell what was going to happen, I was still shocked when things finally came together.

Since I listened to this as an audiobook, I also want to touch on the narrator, Nan McNamara. She did a great job of drawing me into the story, although I did notice that Claudia’s distinctive New Jersey accent kind of came and went during her dialogue. And there were parts where she spoke Spanish that was meant to be fluent, by several different characters, but it sounded anything but. I struggled to understand the choppy words, read without inflection and any tone. It sounded like anything but fluency, and rather someone just reading the words off the page, unlike her English delivery, which was much more nuanced and smooth. 

Overall, this was a chilling story and gave a lot of insight into how people get pulled into cults and coerced into committing acts that they’d never normally perform. It also spoke to the people who lead such groups, and how these groups may start with lofty goals but get off-track. It brings to mind the quote: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 5

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