Gillian thought she had everything she ever wanted—as a successful publicist running her own Manhattan firm and working with a high-profile-celebrity clientele, she finally made herself at home among the elite who eluded her throughout her youth. That is, until her career implodes, leaving her jobless, friendless, and with a googleable reputation that follows her everywhere. So, when she receives an offer to become a “dorm mom” at Glen Ellen Academy, the prestigious Sonoma boarding school she attended two decades earlier on scholarship, she leaps at the opportunity for a change of scene—at least until she can figure out how to rehabilitate her career.
But Gillian is surprised to find herself enjoying her new life: her role as a mentor is unexpectedly fulfilling, she finds a community, and most surprisingly of all she runs into an old flame from her own time at school, who is just as dashing now as he was then. However, just as she begins to feel comfortable, a scandal surfaces on campus that threatens to derail everything, and Gillian must figure out how to save her job, her students, her friends, and her new romance before it’s too late.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Driving through the gates of Glen Ellen Academy was like returning to the childhood home she'd never known she missed. To get there, the cab wound up through the hills of Glen Ellen, past Jack London's estate turned parkland. The road forked off and snaked through an ill-kempt vineyard. But behind the rows of grapevines was hidden a neatly manicured campus, introduced by an understated sign bearing the words glen ellen academy in a sans serif font, small but strong. The cab passed under a brick archway, by a stately clock tower, and continued on toward eight brick buildings situated around a quad that made up the small private school Gillian Brodie had attended for high school. They hadn't been the happiest years of her life, but they weren't the worst. This past year had been the literal worst. And for some reason-probably mostly because of timing and her reliable series of donations over the years-she had been invited back to the school. Not to give an inspiring speech about her career as a publicist to the stars (which was what she had always hoped they would do), but as a dorm mother to a bunch of teenage girls. Oh, how she had fallen. Though also, how grateful she was to be taken in.
"It's right up here," she said to the driver, who inched around the quad. This road would soon be closed off to cars, but they were allowed during move-in and move-out weeks. This quad would also soon be filled with students-children who didn't know what the world was like before September 11. It was history the way JFK's assassination and the Vietnam War and the 1970s gas crisis were to Gillian. By returning to Glen Ellen, she felt she was revisiting both the happiest and the most traumatic parts of her own personal history-if there was a history to be written about her at all.
The quad was even more stunning than it had been when she was in school, more than twenty years ago. It was crisscrossed with curving brick paths-the founders of Glen Ellen Academy, Winston and Millicent Royce, hadn't believed in walking in straight lines-which were surrounded by flower beds and well-pruned vegetable gardens. It was possible sometimes to pick a cucumber or a pepper from along a path. In Gillian's day you would report a "Veg Collection" on the dorm bulletin board, but probably that kind of update went on your InstaStories now. The gardens seemed more curated now though, more pruned. Maybe there was a chief gardener who made sure the campus was well-manicured, or maybe it was just cleaned up for the sake of the arriving families. There were new trellises climbing with grapes, as well as cedars and dogwoods scattered about, making perfect little picnic or reading spots. Seeing the quad brought back so many memories-of happy moments like her second-day-of-school picnic, though also painful ones-but seeing it empty of people was a first. She guessed being "faculty" had its privileges.
Freshman year, she and her roommate, Miranda, had instituted a "second-day-of-school picnic," where they pocketed food from the dining hall and took it outside to eat on a checkered blanket. The blanket was one of the few luxuries Gillian had brought with her, and it had inspired Miranda. "If they see us having fun out here, they'll want to be our friends," she had said as they stuffed sloppily made sandwiches into their backpacks. Gillian had thought that Miranda was a genius-by making up a tradition, they put themselves in the center of the school's social life. And having it happen at the beginning of the year meant that it was an event guaranteed to be documented on dorm bulletin boards, in the yearbook, and in the printed promotional materials the school sent out to prospective students. The first year, it was only the two of them on a picnic blanket, but the second year, dozens of students joined-a picnic blanket became a necessary item on the school packing list. By senior year, it had become a girls' dorm ritual. Miranda and her picnic basket graced the cover of the 1996 Glen Ellen Academy catalog. Gillian wondered if it still happened, and if it didn't, if she could rekindle the custom.
The cab came to a stop right in front of Vallejo, the six-story red brick dormitory with a green roof that Gillian would call home for the next nine months. She took a deep breath as she stepped out into the fresh Sonoma air. The smell of cut grass and newly picked grapes, with a slight aroma of cow wafting through occasionally-she hadn't thought about this scent in years, but it brought back all of her feelings about school: the terror she'd felt when she'd first arrived, a total fish out of water; the happiness she'd felt when she had a group of friends; and the eventual sadness that had developed by the time she'd graduated. All of those memories appeared with one inhalation. She took in the scene while the driver piled her luggage on the curb before driving off.
There was nobody here to meet her. She pulled out her phone to see what the arrival instructions had been. The email said that she should just go in-the front door would be open, as would the door to her room. Her set of keys-including the master key to all the rooms in the dorm-would be in her suite. So different from New York City, filled with lockboxes, dead bolts, and entry codes. She stood there surrounded by all of her portable possessions, which were cradled in Louis Vuitton luggage that had been left behind by a former client. Gillian had appropriated the set, as she had so many of their cast-offs. She picked up a suitcase in each hand, sighing. Back when she had traveled for business all the time, someone else had always been moving her luggage around. But now that phase of her life was over. It was bittersweet; the job had been simultaneously fun and hard, though the perks had been pretty fabulous. She headed through the front door of Vallejo and looked around for a cart. There was nothing to be found. She left her bags next to the elevator and went back through the lobby to shuttle the rest inside.
When she returned outside, standing next to her assortment of suitcases was a tall girl dressed head to toe in Lululemon, with a long blond ponytail streaming from the top of her head. She was taking a photo of the pile with her phone. "Hello?" Gillian prompted.
"Oh, hi," the girl said. She put her phone in her back waist pocket and held her hand out to shake Gillian's. "I'm Bunny Winthrop. Senior class president. Class officers get to move in three days early. You must be our new dorm mom. Our last one was, like, fifty thousand years old, so you're already better. Also, nice luggage."
"Thanks," Gillian said. "And yes, I'm your new dorm mom, Gillian Brodie. Coming back to my alma mater is making me feel fifty thousand years old. But I'm not really."
"Well, you certainly don't look fifty thousand. So, you're a Gem alum? How cool."
"You still call it the Gem?" Gillian said.
"Yeah, it's kind of a dumb name, but everyone uses it."
"Do you know why?" Gillian asked.
"I've always wondered!" Bunny said. "But I was too lazy to find out."
"It's because the founders' granddaughter couldn't say 'Glen Ellen Academy' and she called it 'Gem' and they loved it. So they started calling it the Gem and used the name for the newspaper and on T-shirts and things."
The shirt that said, i'm a gem-truly outrageous was the most popular one when Gillian was in high school. But she felt that trying to explain that to Bunny would be uninteresting.
"Wow," Bunny said. "I can't believe you went here. I'll have to look you up in the yearbook. We digitized them all for our junior class project."
"Please don't," Gillian said.
Bunny was already searching on her phone. "Oh, you were cute in high school. This is going to be great. Can I help you with these?" She picked up Gillian's biggest suitcase and walked toward the dormitory door. Gillian grabbed the last two and followed behind, marveling that it had taken about thirteen seconds for Bunny to find out Gillian's high school status.
When she got to the elevator, Bunny was already inside with the other bags, holding the door with one hand, still scrolling through her phone with the other. "So you went to Yale and then you worked for Ken Sunshine-one of the most famous publicists of all time-and then started your own PR firm, all before the age of thirty?"
"I did," Gillian said, taken aback.
"Oh," Bunny said, her face suddenly all concern. "Looks like you've had kind of a bad year."
"I wouldn't be here if I had had a good year." Gillian gritted her teeth. She knew that there was information about her online, but she hadn't quite realized how accessible it would be to the students at school.
"Good point," Bunny said. "Well, then, I guess I'm glad you had a bad year, but wow, sorry."
"It wasn't the best," Gillian said.
"I can't believe you worked with all of those people," Bunny said, waving her phone in Gillian's face. "Brendan Reid, Walter Quinn. God."
"Is all of this accurate?" Bunny asked.
"Sadly, it is." Gillian hung her head.
"Not sad at all. It's amazing. Remind me never to get on your bad side."
"That would be wise," Gillian said, thinking about how she was going to have to discipline these girls even though they would know so much about her and some of it was pretty embarrassing.
Within five minutes, Bunny had downloaded Gillian's entire life, analyzed it, and deemed Gillian to be acceptable-if not fear-inspiring. It was the kind of analysis that record labels paid focus group researchers top dollar for but a seventeen-year-old could do instantaneously. Gillian had spent a few weeks telling herself that what had happened in New York was over, and yet here she was, barreling right back into it via a Google search. Not just the past of her adulthood, but also the past of high school. High school was a different kind of pain-of heartache and loneliness and insecurity rather than public humiliation and grandstanding. Sadly, Gillian had experienced both.
The elevator opened and Gillian and Bunny bucket-brigaded her suitcases to the suite at the far corner of the top floor. Memories of her own trips to the dorm mother's suite flooded back. She had found herself in Louise's room many times with tears running down her face, but the one that stood out was the night during her senior year when the gossip was flying, when everyone had turned on her and the whiteboards on each door all displayed G's with X's through them. High school: the original cancel culture. That night, Louise had said, "I know this feels horrible now, but it's going to get better. You're going to have a great life and this will only motivate you to be better than they are." Louise was kind of right-it did get better, although not until after she left the Gem.
"Your room is at the end of the hallway," Bunny said. "It's nice. They cleaned it since the last dorm mom lived here. But the furniture she picked out might still be there. She had terrible taste."
It was like nothing had really changed at all. The girls were still mean. The carpets looked the same. Gillian wondered if they had purposefully chosen the same pattern as had been there before-a purple background covered in twisting green vines-or if it had never been replaced. She had spent so many hours lounging in these hallways, the vines were etched on her brain. Regardless, the vibe was the same. Heavy wood doors with old-fashioned numbers on them connected by dark wood chair rails lined the dark hall. Photos of crusty old Gem alumnae in between each room. Some rooms had little plaques next to them engraved with obscure names, indicating that people nobody remembered anymore had lived in those rooms. Gillian herself had lived in room 308 of Vallejo, but she was sure she didn't have a plaque.
On her first day of school, she had shown up with her mom’s old plastic suitcase that didn’t even have wheels on it and a faded Acer desktop computer. She and her mother had moved her stuff, piece by piece-the giant monitor, the tower, the keyboard-into the dorm and onto her desk. When Miranda, who came from generations of wealth, had walked into their shared room and unpacked her fancy laptop covered in stickers, she had laughed out loud at Gillian’s desk setup. “Where did you get that thing?” she asked. Gillian had been crawling under the desk to find the power outlet.
"Oh, it was my grandfather's," Gillian said, her face turning red. She had felt lucky to have the machine up until that moment.
"I can tell," Miranda said. Then she opened the closet where Gillian's two "nice" dresses and three pairs of jeans hung. The jeans were new, one pair from Banana Republic and one from the Gap and one a designer pair of Mavi's from Burlington Coat Factory. The Mavi's were the nicest pairs of jeans she had ever owned, bought on high discount. "Are you not done unpacking?" Miranda asked.
"No, that's all I brought," Gillian said.
"Oh," Miranda said, looking a bit befuddled, but then realizing her luck. "Can I have some space in your closet? Mine's overflowing." She opened her closet, which was filled to the brim with every color of shirt and dress, each in its own individual dry cleaner bag, which meant that she had spent a fortune not only on her wardrobe, but also on dry-cleaning each piece of it. Gillian had only had one thing dry-cleaned ever, the dress she wore to her uncle's wedding: a hand-me-down that needed alterations before she wore it. The two of them had gone together to the dry cleaner to have it taken in and cleaned. Gillian had saved the plastic bag and hanger it had come back on as it had felt like such a special thing.
"I just . . ." Gillian stammered, looking back at her empty closet. She had never felt more humiliated in her entire life.
But Miranda was sweet: "Don't worry, this is a win-win. I need more space and you need more clothes. You can borrow my things. I think we're about the same size. You already wear your jeans a little long, so it should be fine."