In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emily Winter finds herself the new student at Bromley, an upper-crust girls’ school in New York City. She becomes friends with Phoebe, although their friendship is threatened when Phoebe joins an anti-Semitic club founded by the popular Cressida Whitcroft. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself in the midst of fellow students who are mourning the death of actor James Dean, who had been killed in a car crash the week before. The novel continues to portray Emily’s situation as one of the only Jewish girls in a WASP school. We follow her exploits as she tries to fit in with her peer group at such a sensitive age. She and Phoebe share their interest in medieval lore and the romances of Lancelot and Guinevere, and of Tristan and Isolde. She notices that Phoebe has put herself on a diet, never eating the usual fattening plates of pizza, doughnuts, or Cheezits. When Phoebe excuses herself to go to the bathroom, Emily hears Phoebe on the scale, and then she hears her doing jumping jacks. Phoebe announces to her mother that she’s lost twenty pounds.
Mendelsohn has written a lively period novel with a fairly accurate depiction of life in New York City. Her incorporation of the latest teenage fan thrills such as James Dean and Laurence Olivier adds verisimilitude to the world of a private school in Manhattan. The author also provides perspective as to the experience of growing up Jewish in such an exclusive WASP enclave. She creates an artful depiction of girls from the era facing issues such as bigotry, prejudice, and anorexia.