The Finishing School by Joanna Goodman is a suspenseful, provocative novel of friendship, secrets, and deceit, in which a successful writer returns to her elite Swiss boarding school to get to the bottom of a tragic accident that took place while she was a student twenty years earlier.
How far would you go to uncover the truth?
One spring night in 1998 the beautiful Cressida Strauss plunges from a fourth-floor balcony at the Lycée Internationale Suisse with catastrophic consequences. Loath to draw negative publicity to the school, a bastion of European wealth and glamour, officials quickly dismiss the incident as an accident, but questions remain: Was it a suicide attempt? Or was Cressida pushed? It was no secret that she had a selfish streak and had earned as many enemies as allies in her tenure at the school. For her best friend, scholarship student Kersti Kuusk, the lingering questions surrounding Cressida's fall continue to nag long after she leaves the Lycée.
Kersti marries and becomes a bestselling writer, but never stops wondering about Cressida's obsession with the Helvetian Society—a secret club banned years before their arrival at the school—and a pair of its members who were expelled. When Kersti is invited as a guest to the Lycée's 100th Anniversary, she begins probing the cover-up, unearthing a frightening underbelly of lies and abuse at the prestigious establishment. And in one portentous moment, Kersti makes a decision that will connect her to Cressida forever and raise the stakes dangerously high in her own desire to solve the mystery and redeem her past.
I want you to know the story of how you came to be and to understand why I had to do what I did. I know that some of the things I did were crazy. Some people thought I went too far, that I became unhinged. At times, I did, too. But no matter how strange or surreal it seemed, there was, for me, a perverse logic to it.
I’m here to tell you it was worth it. You were worth it. And I would do it all over again if faced with the same choice.
I challenge any woman in my shoes to walk away from the fortuitous opportunity that was presented to me, or to opt for defeat when a solution so miraculously landed in my lap.
I never saw myself as the kind of person who would stop at nothing to get what I wanted, but this last year has proved that’s exactly who I am. I found with in myself a selfishness and a relentlessness I did not know I had. Those traits are not always a bad thing, especially for someone like me. Someone who rarely staked a claim.
You brought that out in me; my desire for you prevailed over all else, including that need to please everyone and be approved of and always do the reasonable thing. Nothing about how I wound up here was reasonable. Nothing about your story to this point aligns with the woman I thought I was. You summoned me to fight, to do the inconceivable and be utterly dauntless about my ambition. Funny, the harder I fought—not just for you, but also for the truth—the more I began to like myself.
Turns out I’m not so different from Cressida after all. You have your life because of it.
Lille is dead.
Kersti rereads the letter, which arrived inside an innocuous envelope from her agent, Rona Sharpe. She tore it open, anticipating the usual royalty statement with Rona’s familiar for your records scribbled at the top. But inside that envelope there was another letter, still in its sealed envelope. It was addressed to Kersti Kussk-Wax, c/o Rona Sharpe Literary Agency. There was a Connecticut postmark and the name Robertson printed on the back flap.
Kersti opened it and read the square yellow Post-it stuck to the letter, which was from Lille’s mother.
Kersti, we found this letter on Lille’s computer after she died. I had forgotten about it until I received an invitation to the Lycée’s 100th Anniversary. Lille’s letter is unfinished, but it may be of interest to you. Best, Jaqueline Robertson
Kersti’s mouth went dry. After she died? She unfolded the letter, her fingertips tingling. After all these years of silence, a letter? It made no sense.
Mwah mwah mwah. Three kisses for old times’ sake. I know it’s been a long time, but I’ve been following your writing career and I’ve read your last two books and I’m so happy for you.
My favorite was Moonset over Tallinn. (I tried to order The Ski Maker’s Daughter, but it doesn’t seem to exist.)
I won’t get to read your next one. I’m going to die soon.
After I graduated from the Lycée (I stayed to complete the year . . . where else could I go?) I was accepted at Brown, and managed to get a degree in Psychology. I briefly entertained the possibility of becoming a Jungian analyst. Ha! In the end, I decided I couldn’t risk further undermining the already fragile mental stability of my future potential clients. So I took some photography courses. I love photography. I even had a show at a small gallery in Williamsburg back in ’99, but my confidence wasn’t up for all that scrutiny—having my work displayed on the walls for people to judge. I even felt unworthy of the positive attention. Nothing sold. I wasn’t very good anyway and continued to pursue it only as a hobby.
I’ve had an underwhelming life, even by my own standards. There was more I could have accomplished—there’s actually a fairly sharp intellect in this warped brain—but my desires and ideas never seemed to match my output.
Fear. That was my problem. I’ve always felt like a child cowering in a corner. Oddly enough, the one thing I did not fear was death. I feared not being liked; not being good enough; not being worthy; not being respected; not being beautiful; not being happy or useful or productive; I feared being exposed, being abandoned, being seen, being judged, being rejected.
But I never feared death. (Good thing, it turns out.) Do you remember that book The Secret that came out a few years ago? Everyone was talking about the Law of Attraction and how you could manifest whatever you wanted in life just by thinking about it—but also that you could manifest whatever you didn’t want just by thinking about it. The whole concept was oversimplified and exploited, but not without its truths. I believe the fear inside me eventually turned into a tumor and settled in my breast. Stage 4, at the time of my diagnosis. Seventeen lymph nodes infected. That’s a lot of fear.
The process of dying stirs up a lot of shit, Kerst. I’m not intending this to be a confession, but I’ve kept a lot of stuff to myself over the years. I wonder if I should have shared it, at least with a shrink. I imagine that all the crap I’ve kept to myself lives inside that tumor. (Have you ever read the story “Hairball” by Margaret Atwood? After the main character has a tumor surgically removed, she stores it in formaldehyde, keeps it on her mantelpiece, and calls it “Hairball.”) That’s how I picture my tumors (I’ve got lots of them now—in my bones, my liver, my spine).
I know this is a cliché of the dying person, but certain things in particular still haunt me:
- I don’t believe Cressida “fell” by accident.
- There’s something incriminating in the Helvetians ledger. I think Deirdre has it (if not, where is it?).
- I wonder if Magnus saw anything (I saw him leaving Huber House that night).
- I wish I’d spoken up sooner
The letter ends abruptly. Obviously, Lille had more to say. Maybe she got too sick; maybe she wrestled with how much more to confess and then died before a satisfactory answer ever revealed itself. Kersti realizes she’s still standing at her desk and collapses heavily into the chair.
Lille is dead.
Copyright © 2017 Joanna Goodman.
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Joanna Goodman is the author of three previous novels. Her stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Ottawa Citizen, B & A Fiction, Event, The New Quarterly, and White Wall Review, as well as excerpted in Elisabeth Harvor’s fiction anthology A Room at the Heart of Things. Originally from Montreal, Joanna now lives in Toronto with her husband and two kids, and is the owner of the Canadian linen company Au Lit Fine Linens.