Because I so liked French's other books, I looked forward to this one. Imagine my surprise when about halfway through, I found myself thinking, "This is truly boring," and fighting the impulse to skip ahead to the ending just to get it over with.
The story, which not only alternates between the points of view of the police and two groups of adolescent girls in the claustrophobic, mean-girl world of a boarding school but also between chronological markers, is cleverly structured. Essentially, the police investigation takes place over the course of a single day, but the section involving the girls, and the crime, arcs across many months. French is skillful in making the past collide with the present. But in the end, I found it hard to sustain an interest.
Two things struck me as particularly distracting: The introduction of the paranormal--as a strategy by the murder police and as a type of power by some of the girls--didn't seem to me to move the story along. Rather, it made me think more than once, "Oh, come on!" The other distraction was the language used to describe the ways adolescent girls experience themselves and the world--another kind of mystical "we are as blooming flowers shot through with sparks of lightning" thing. While French does a good job evoking the often-chaotic interior world of young girls, she does way too much of it in this book.
If The Secret Place was the first French book I'd read, I would never read another. But since I've been reading her work from the beginning, I can hope that this was an aberration, and that her next one will be better--more tightly written, more deeply drawn characters (and with every use of the word "totes" edited out!).