Meg Rosenthal needs a fresh start after the death of her husband. She gave up her career as an artist when her daughter Sally was born, but when she is left with virtually nothing except for a barely functional car, she finds a job teaching folklore and English at a small boarding school for young artists in upstate New York. Sally, now a teenager and a promising artist herself, is admitted to the Arcadia School where her mother will work. Meg hopes that this new career will not only allow her to research the school’s founders—Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt—for her dissertation, but perhaps she will also find the daughter she once knew instead of the sullen girl who hides away with her iPod and drawings.
The Arcadia School is the perfect setting for a gothic campus novel, having inspired its creators to write and illustrate many of their own fairy tales. This book is replete with many signature fairy tale elements: a cottage in the woods, an orphan, a murderous villain, and even a Prince Charming of sorts. However, the fairy tales of Arcadia Falls are not the stuff of Disney movies; rather, they are more akin to the Grimm Brothers’ darker stories. Perhaps the darkest element of the school’s past is the tragic death of Lily Eberhardt, who fell into a clove while allegedly leaving the school to run off with her lover, her body missing for weeks before anyone realized that she had never made it off the school’s grounds. Shortly after Meg and Sally arrive, a student falls into the same deep valley during one of the school’s many Pagan rituals. It does not take long before Meg and others at the school begin to wonder if this death was truly an accident.
Carol Goodman’s Arcadia Falls is reminiscent of her earlier novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, a similarly dark boarding school story in which there are mysterious recurring deaths. In this rendition, Goodman delivers a rich and fast-paced novel that moves fluidly between the history of the Arcadia School, the changeling tale written by the school’s founders, and Meg and Sally’s contemporary story. Passages from the changeling story and from Lily’s journal add depth and authenticity to the novel. Keeping the facts straight in this complex, multi-generational plot line can be difficult at times, but ultimately Goodman achieves a thought provoking comparison between the lives of female artists in the mid-twentieth century and today.
While there are numerous subplots built into the book, the overarching question Goodman asks is whether a woman can be both a mother and an artist. The Arcadia School’s founders were required to sacrifice family life for the sake of their careers, while Meg initially did just the opposite. Yet, in rebuilding her life, Meg comes to realize that if she wants to teach her daughter the virtues of being a strong, independent woman, she must find a way to juggle her responsibilities. This is a message that will resonate with many modern readers questioning whether the paths toward family and career must be mutually exclusive.