The Swallows by Lisa Lutz


My Rating: 3 stars

The Swallows brings us to Stonebridge Academy, a co-ed New England boarding school with dark secrets lurking in it’s halls. Alex Witt, the new creative writing teacher, quickly becomes aware of the boys’ secret website the Darkroom, where they post vulgar pictures and descriptions of women and rate blowjobs from their female classmates as part of the “Dulcinea Award.” She also becomes aware of and starts aiding a few of the senior girls who know of the contest and want to see it destroyed. Part mystery and thriller and part campus novel, it is an incredibly engaging story that kept me guessing until the end. It’s a fairly timely book featuring feminist, Me Too Movement themes and a critique of “boys will be boys” culture, which I know will appeal to a lot of readers.

I read this on audiobook, and I highly recommend that format if you want to check it out. Lutz uses four different narrators, and they are each voiced by a different cast member. The readers perfectly capture the characters’ voices and make the book extra fun. I loved Alex Witt as both a character and a narrator. She’s a snarky, modern woman who refuses to take shit from anyone, whether it is her students, her colleagues, or her novelist father. Honestly, she really made the book for me. I think my rating would have been much lower if not for the inclusion of her character. As an English teacher who also doesn’t really love teaching, I related to her so much and I actually may start using her anonymous survey in my own classes. I also enjoyed Gemma’s chapters and reading about her little gang of rebels.

However, I wasn’t as enthused with all of the characters. I’m still not sure why Lutz included Finn Ford, the slimy, novel-writing English teacher, as a narrator. The only thing he really added was giving me the heebie-jeebies every time I had to be in his head. Some of the other characters felt flat and under-developed, particularly the antagonists. We never gain much insight into why they do the horrible things they do. In fact, for two characters, the reasons for their actions are brushed off with a few throwaway lines about abuse they experienced in the past. This ultimately rubbed me the wrong way, and I felt it should have been explored a little more if that was the route Lutz wanted to go.

My biggest problem with the book is that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief far enough to swallow (not pun intended) some of the events. I couldn’t believe that high school students could get away with even half of the things depicted here. There is essentially no supervision at Stonebridge. Based on what Lutz has written, there seems to be less than ten adults on the whole campus, and they are all either completely clueless or aware of the situation and unwilling to act because they are too afraid or, worse, in on it somehow. There are a host of other things I found unbelievable as well, including the students’ hierarchy system, the revelation of these huge secrets in a creative writing assignment (even if they did think it was anonymous), and the fact that the majority of the girls are unaware of the Dulcinea Award. I know a lot of teenage boys; they are probably the least subtle people on the planet. There is no way something like this would go on for years without the girls finding out and doing something about it sooner. It ultimately just felt like too much for me, especially since the book does seem to be trying to make a serious point.

Overall, despite it’s flaws The Swallows is an enjoyable thriller with some good critique of current issues. Just go into it knowing that it’s a huge exercise in suspension of disbelief. 

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