Apr 30 2013 3:30pm

First Look: Nancy Ohlin’s Thorn Abbey (May 7, 2013)

Thorn Abbey by Nancy OhlinNancy Ohlin
Thorn Abbey
Simon Pulse / May 7, 2013 / $16.99 print, $9.99 digital

Becca was the perfect girlfriend: smart, gorgeous, and loved by everyone at New England’s premier boarding school, Thorn Abbey. But Becca’s dead. And her boyfriend, Max, can’t get over his loss.

Then Tess transfers to Thorn Abbey. She’s shy, insecure, and ordinary—everything that Becca wasn’t. And despite her roommate’s warnings, she falls for brooding Max.

Now Max finally has a reason to move on. Except it won’t be easy. Because Becca may be gone, but she’s not quite ready to let him go.

Nancy Ohlin’s Thorn Abbey revisits Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic classic, Rebecca. Mysterious Max, his dead girlfriend Becca, and the first-person narrator, Tess, reenact a teen version of the Gothic triangle, with Tess’s boarding school roommate serving in the housekeeper role.

My favorite thing about this book was how the story transitioned to its new setting, and how elements of the original are cast in new light by the differing ages of the characters, by the setting, and by the contemporary time period. Ohlin adds a new supernatural element, but at the same time, some elements remain reassuringly the same. Since the heroines of gothic novels tend to be naïve, it’s an easy jump from a young wife brought to a huge, brooding mansion to a teenager from a small town transferring to a brooding gray stone boarding school. Both move into an insular and threatening world populated by people who are more wealthy than they are, and who are presented as being more devious.

As in all proper Gothics the house, or in this case the school buildings, are characters in their own right. The similarities between the original and retold stories in this respect provide a solid bridge between the two works.

How can I describe Thorn Abbey? It is like something out of Jane Austen or Harry Potter or a fairy tale. The main building, Lanyon Hall, is an enormous gray stone mansion, practically a castle. It has turrets and towers and tall, arched windows that overlook the wide, grassy quadrangle. Or “quad,” as Devon calls it. There are gardens everywhere, including flower gardens and herb gardens and even a Shakespeare garden. On the north face of the quad are dorms, including mine, Kerrith Hall. On the south face are more dorms as well as the music and art studios. To the east is the ocean.

This description of Lanyon Hall’s interior seems to be an oblique reference to Hogwarts. True, the Harry Potter books aren’t Gothics, but Hogwarts itself could easily have been the setting for one!

There are so many sets of stairs, some of which go all the way to the top and some of which only go up to a certain floor and then sprout wings and annexes.
Tess, the narrator, is out of her depth among the wealthy students of Thorn Abbey, mirroring the situation of Rebecca’s narrator, who serves as companion to a wealthy woman before marrying Max. In Thorn Abbey, however, Tess is a bit more fleshed out as an individual (for one thing, she has a name other than “Mrs. De Winter”!). Through Tess’s own commentary, and how she’s treated by others, it becomes clear that she is an exceptional student, but has trouble comprehending the social machinations of her peers. In other words, she’s a bit of a geek, and was not popular even at her old school. This makes Tess, in some ways, a more vulnerable and sympathetic character than Mrs. De Winter. Tess’s self-esteem suffers as a result of her rudimentary social skills, and she tends to take refuge in romantic fantasies about Max even while scolding herself for it. However, taken to an extreme, her obsession with Max and with the deceased Becca adds an extra layer of creepiness to the story.

I only met him this morning, and we exchanged like two words. Sure, he’s handsome. It’s more than that, though. I get the feeling we’re similar inside. Different from other people. Outsiders, like the French lieutenant’s woman. I’m not sure how I know all this about him already. I think it was the way he was staring out the window. Or the way we locked eyes as he was walking away. We definitely shared a moment. Of course, Mom always said that I have a vivid imagination. And I’m a sucker for boys who notice me. It’s not something I experience often.

…Tonight felt like a breakthrough. Max and I made a connection. A tiny, fledgling connection, but still. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for him to find the right person to help him move on after Becca’s death. After all, we deep, smart, solitary types have a tough time relating to people who aren’t like us. But now Max has me.

Thorn Abbey is well-suited for a gloomy, rainy night; those who haven’t read Rebecca might enjoy this take. But I suspect knowledge of the original story will bring a greater reward because it’s fun to compare and contrast the original with the new characters and plot.

Learn more about or pre-order a copy of Nancy Ohlin's Thorn Abbey (out May 7):

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Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. She also reads a lot. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

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