Every great tragedy started with love. The characters in Klehfoth's novel have seen sharp vicissitudes of a history that is coming back to tear them asunder--especially the novel's narrator, Charlie Calloway, who has a privileged New York upbringing but suffers from her mother's desertion and from the gruesome rumors that her father killed her. Set in 2017 in Knollwood, an elitist New England prep school, All These Beautiful Strangers follows a group of students who take for granted the privileges that have been given them. Charlie is flattered to be accepted into the A's, Knollwood's secret club. You are expected to collect these clubs like "trinkets on a charm bracelet." Charlie doesn't speculate about what the A's will make her do, though she knows that whatever it is, it will not be easy.
Charlie is in a fog, haunted by a story on campus about student Jake Griffin who was said to have committed suicide in 1991. Charlie seethes with insecurity, mindful of the gears constantly clicking in the brains of her friends: handsome Dalton, Stevie, Yael, Drew, and her beloved cousin, the turquoise-eyed Leo. Charlie desperately wants to be part of the A's, and determined to do it on her own: "I would become someone who wasn't afraid of anything, someone powerful who could bend others to her will."
The lingering narcissism that sometimes goes along with gifted students poisons Charlie as she stands and stares into the abyss. She tells herself she's being paranoid, that she hasn't seen a ghost. She's just unsettled from everything that happened earlier with Leo and with Ren, her best friend who tells her that "we all belong to each other now." Charlie knows they hold each other's secrets, sharing a bond that could make them just as surely as it could destroy them.
Though Klehfoth's novel is reminiscent of Donna Tartt's A Secret History, the book really isn't about collegial secret societies but about loving and losing the people we love. No one ever talks about Charlie's mother, Grace, or the night she disappeared in 2007 when Charlie was only seven and her sister, Seraphina, was five. For years, Charlie has endured the pitying glances and the whispers. Rumor has it that Grace was "a whore" who slept with Charlie's father, Alistair, for his money. Her mother's whereabouts are constantly held up for speculation. For Charlie, though, Grace's vanishing is "like some dark, forbidden thing."
When Uncle Hank shows Charlie a series of pictures, the past threatens to suck Claire back into its tangled web. The pictures unsettle her. She's not sure what they're all about. In a quest to get answers, she goes back to Hillsborough, to the house on Langley Lake where Hank found the pictures and to her mother's oldest friend, who tells her that Grace was as sharp as they come and "wanted to be out there living life." The months before she went missing, Alistair and Grace fought constantly. The story was splashed across the cover of every gossip magazine and a topic on every news outlet. The police took Alistair away for questioning and divers searched the dark depths of Langley Lake. People ate it up: Alistair Calloway: "the murderer and wife killer."
The story is told from the points of view of Charlie, Grace and Alistair. Alistair is a fully-fledged narcissist and sociopath: ("I was a Calloway. I wasn't born and bred and raised to be average.") Other characters jump out, shaking us up with their fears: Margot, Alistair's stuck-up fiancé, who spins lies and manipulates the facts until the story plays in her favor; and Alistair's brother, Teddy, who acts like a complete idiot, feigning laziness and stupidity, but underneath is just as sharp and shrewd and cutthroat. In a plot that circles around the bloody murder followed by the minutely premeditated cover-up, we watch the psychological drama unfold through the eyes of Charlie and Grace and a group of twisted A's. Charlie doesn't know how to make her knowledge of the A's fit with her mother's disappearance. She's shocked to learn that Jake Griffin and her father knew each other at Knollwood. They had been A's together.
Charlie fights to make peace with the loss of Grace, who loomed so large in her life, an inextricable part of the girl Charlie would become. Klehfoth constantly seduces us with her languid, beautiful prose. I read the novel in just two sittings, marveling at Charlie's investigation and through to the final confrontation with Alistair when Charlie learns that, no matter how privileged, one can never really understand the makeup of another person, even one who we love.