Book Review | A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

Spine-tingling. Dark academia. Murder. Psychological thriller. A Secret History but make it witchy. Lots of layers packed in this one.

A Lesson in Vengeance

More about A Lesson in Vengeance: Felicity Morrow is back at Dalloway School.

Perched in the Catskill mountains, the centuries-old, ivy-covered campus was home until the tragic death of her girlfriend. Now, after a year away, she’s returned to graduate. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches. The Dalloway Five all died mysteriously, one after another, right on Godwin grounds.

Witchcraft is woven into Dalloway’s history. The school doesn’t talk about it, but the students do. In secret rooms and shadowy corners, girls convene. And before her girlfriend died, Felicity was drawn to the dark. She’s determined to leave that behind her now; all Felicity wants is to focus on her senior thesis and graduate. But it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget.

It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway, and she’s already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is a so-called “method writer.” She’s eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource.

And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway–and in herself.

My thoughts

This has been a tough book review to write. I’ve composed three drafts of this post, and after deleting them, I’ve decided to just get it out and press on.

I will say that I did enjoy reading this book. I remember closing it thinking, “Wow! OK. I liked it.” But as time goes on, I am ruminating on things that I didn’t like about it — and they outweigh the very few elements that I did enjoy.

What I liked:

  • The subtle dark, witchy vibes.
  • The atmospheric setting: Intelligent girls at an all-girls boarding school in New England.
  • The twisted characters. Very. Twisted.
  • The author’s deep dive into the psychosis of the main character.
  • The ending (even though it was disturbing).

What I did not like:

  • The “too-muchness” of it all. I know it’s not an eloquent way to describe it, but honestly, this book was all over the place when it came to genres. If you are expecting to read a Gothic-like contemporary horror book, then you will close it disappointed. It went from coven-inspired, dark academic vibes to murder mystery/thriller/psychological thriller in an instant, and it left me (and a few other readers I talked to) feeling jumbled.
  • The author’s inconsistent narration. Felicity is an intelligent young woman. She is a senior in high school writing her thesis on horror lit and female representation (an interest of mine). So, clearly she’s bookish and uses impressive vocabulary. But, her vocabulary was too much during many moments of her narration. She went from “looking for libations” at a high school party (who even says that when you are 17? Or ever?) to everyday teenage colloquialisms. I found myself rolling my eyes a lot during this book.
  • The lack of uncanny and paranormal, particularly by the end. We don’t wrap up the Dalloway Five or any of the witchy elements.

I also realized, very quickly upon finishing, that this book is very similar to A Secret History by Donna Tartt — from the plot to the writing. I read that book last month and I refuse to write a review about it because I disliked it so much.

One of my biggest qualms about Tartt’s writing is what I refer to as the “writer’s flex.” We get it, you are smart. Do you need to use unnecessary vocabulary and showcase your knowledge about the Classics every page? No. You just come off as pretentious.

That’s the same vibe I got from Lee’s book, whose plot does not stray far from Tartt’s in A Secret History … except there are witches and an all-girls school. I get art imitates art, but I shouldn’t be thinking “I just read this book” while reading a new novel. There’s even an Bacchus in …Vengeance, which was a big scene in A Secret History. After reading that Lee is a big fan of Donna Tartt, I had my “AHA!” moment, and wish that the author had a little more ingenuity with this book.

Well, I got it out. It’s done.

Did you read A Lesson in Vengeance? What were your thoughts?