I am fond of stories set in small towns, especially small towns created from scratch. The small town of Haddan, despite its “blustery” weather, is as picturesque as any town can be, filled with fields of wild irises, swans, and the scent of roses. Every year, however, a horde of rich boys and girls travel to the Haddan School, an exclusive academic institution that the very locals, who lead simple lives, cannot even afford to attend. One of the on-campus boarding houses is called Chalk House, built so close to the river that its residents wake up to damp beds and walls. The Chalk House boys observe a strict hierarchy; any boy who wishes to live in peace has to go through an initiation.
One morning, one of the Chalk House boys is found dead.
But Alice Hoffman’s novel isn’t just a murder mystery. It is a story of teenagers rewriting their backgrounds, of a town with a history of a suicide, of people with secrets. Inside is a trick on how to turn a white rose red. (Remember that scene in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, when the young girl passes by clumps of white roses and asks, Do you know how to turn white roses red? It isn’t magic. It is mentioned in Hoffman’s book that during Victorian times, aristocrats liked to keep white roses in their gardens in order to amuse each other with this trick. It is not magic, just a clever use of chemistry. But it’s magic when you don’t know the secret.)