In her emotionally resonant and keenly observed first novel, McGowan employs a stream-of-consciousness prose style to describe the trials of a 13-year-old American girl when she is sent to an English boarding school following the death of her mother. From Maine, Catrine Evans travels to Monstead, the school north of London that her father, Teddy, born in Wales, attended during WWII. His memories of Monstead are halcyon, but the reality is different for Catrine, who is subjected to hazing by intensely class-conscious, cynical students who smoke, sniff glue and commit arson. Poised on the threshold between childhood and adolescence, Catrine's naïveté begins to harden into defensiveness when she realizes that even those who do begin to befriend her still consider her an outsider. Memories of her mother are painful, and she is also increasingly troubled by the knowledge that she and her friend Isabelle, back in Maine, may have caused a fatal accident. Unable to connect with her father, Catrine turns to her chemistry teacher, Mr. Gilbert, who seems to consider her special and encourages her interest in art. As this relationship progresses, Catrine faces the toughest lessons of all: she must learn to know her own mind and the limits and consequences of her emotional needs. McGowan works in an experimental mode. At once lush and harsh, and inventive in form, the novel reads like an extended sensory exercise. Readers who prefer a straightforward narrative may be bemused, but those willing to accept the challenge will be rewarded with a beautifully written coming-of-age tale. (June 19)
Forecast: Blurbs from writers as varied as Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem and Alice Hoffman should give some idea of McGowan's range. Though initially she may be consigned to the writer's-writer ghetto, some good reviews and handselling could get the novel out to a wider audience.