In Carol Goodman’s “The Sea of Lost Girls,” a senior at Haywood Academy writes a paper called “Slut Shaming in Puritan New England and the Age of Social Media.” This sounds like a parody of contemporary woke-think and -speak, but it actually would have made a good alternate title for “The Sea of Lost Girls.”

In her ambitious and attuned new thriller, Goodman sets up a standoff between the two at-odds worlds straddled by narrator and Haywood English teacher Tess Henshaw. At Haywood, an elite boarding school located in coastal Maine, Tess works alongside classic-texts-revering, proper-punctuation-demanding adults, but she finds her attention piqued by the social-media-reliant, #MeToo-embracing student body. Call it the tweedy versus the tweet-y.

“The Sea of Lost Girls,” by Carol Goodman. HarperCollins. 320 pages. $16.99

As “The Sea of Lost Girls” begins, it’s almost three in the morning and Tess is startled awake by a phone call from her 17-year-old son, Rudy, a senior at Haywood. He switches to texting: “Can you come get me?” Tess jumps in her car and picks up Rudy at the Point, a promontory near the Haywood grounds and the site of much local lore. (Fans of lore, rejoice: It gets a thorough workup in Goodman’s novel.)

All Tess can pull out of Rudy is that he’s had a fight with his girlfriend, Lila Zeller. Tess adores Lila, and not just because she writes papers with titles like “Slut Shaming in Puritan New England and the Age of Social Media.” The main reason Tess loves Lila is because of her salubrious influence on twitchy, taciturn and, until recently, semi-delinquent Rudy. Lila even convinced Rudy to play John Proctor in the senior class production of “The Crucible,” which she’s directing with a feminist eye.

Rudy has a dorm room at Haywood but tells his mom that he’d prefer to sleep in his own bed, so Tess drives back to the house where Rudy has lived until recently with Tess and his stepfather, Harmon, another Haywood faculty member. Unable to sleep, Tess stays up grading papers, so she’s awake when Haywood’s longtime headmistress phones in the morning to say that Lila’s lifeless body has been found near the Point.

Before Tess can break the news to Rudy, a police officer is at the house. When the cop asks Rudy where he told his mom to pick him up the night before, Rudy lies and says, “Student parking.” Tess is rattled; surely her son didn’t have anything to do with Lila’s death? Not that Tess doesn’t know her way around a fib, as the novel’s flashbacks make abundantly plain.

“The Sea of Lost Girls” is a frothy whirlwind of suspense, literary criticism and social justice inquiry that will satisfy both atavistic and modern sensibilities. Goodman occasionally settles for clichés – a chill runs down a spine, someone pounds a fist on a table in anger – that are disappointing in a novel with so many literary references and weaken the oft-repeated notion that Tess showed terrific promise as a writer before she went through the hell that contributed to Rudy’s problems. She’s certainly no slouch as a reader. At one point, Tess flashes back to a conversation many years earlier in which she explained to a classmate why she felt obliged to read “The Scarlet Letter” five times: “I keep hoping for a better ending.” Readers of “The Sea of Lost Girls” won’t have to.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic staff editor and coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.”


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