I recently finished A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee. This was a sapphic dark academia thriller that I thought was going to live up to the hype, but unfortunately it fell a little flat for me.
The boarding school setting is one that tends to draw me in like catnip, and this book was no exception. Mush like Ellingham Academy in Truly Devious, Dalloway School has a long, dark history that is solidified by its slightly creepy historic buildings, expectations of academic excellence, and a history of death and murder. The girls at Dalloway are given a lot of freedom and that plays a big role in the book.
We’re initially met with Felicity, our narrator, who immediately turns out to be unreliable. She’s come back to Dalloway after the death of her best friend/girlfriend and a stay in a psychiatric facility. This leads the reader to never really know what information can be trusted. Shortly after Felicity arrives back at school she meets Ellis, a famous writer working on her second book based on the murders that took place at the school. Quickly, Ellis sets her sights on Felicity and their relationship unfolds over the course of the book. The plot revolves around the mind games they play with each other, themselves, and the other students of Godwin House. It doesn’t help that Felicity is trying desperately to forget what happened last fall and Ellis wants so desperately for her to remember.
After talking to a few other readers about the book I found that my feelings regarding Ellis Haley weren’t unwarranted. The unlikability of her character was a bit of a turn off and made me not want to pick the book up as often. We talked about how she’s super toxic yet everyone idolizes her because she’s famous. I mentioned how I thought the aim for Ellis’ character was for her to be super toxic yet everyone loved her, causing Felicity to second guess what she thought she figured out. This reminded me of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green. The main character is also awful and unlikeable, but that was the whole point. People put others on these pedestals because they’re famous and don’t realize what kind of person they really are until maybe it’s too late. They’re just people who happen to have done something to make them famous. The consistent gaslighting of Felicity by Ellis took me out of the romance element. Talk about not seeing the toxicity until it’s too late because you’re star-struck that someone famous is giving you the time of day and seems genuinely interested in you. Not to mention being mentally ill and getting taken advantage of.
Overall, I enjoyed the spooky vibes of this one—it had me genuinely freaked out a time or two—but I can’t get past the toxicity.
CW: Death, panic/anxiety, mental illness, murder, animal deaths, underage drinking and smoking, body horror, gaslighting, alcoholism, toxic relationships