What do you get when you combine an esteemed East Coast prep school, an exclusive and secretive student society hell-bent on disruption, a high-stakes initiation process, and the still-unsolved mysterious disappearance of the beautiful wife of a real estate mogul?
You get All These Beautiful Strangers.
In this case, the prep school is Knollwood Augustus Prep, situated in a typical New England town and full of typical New England teenagers. The secret society is the A’s, an elite group that operates in the shadows of Knollwood to wreak havoc, like the time they hacked into the school’s listserv to expose a dean with a penchant for exchanging scandalous emails with underage students. The initiation process is The Game, a semester-long scavenger hunt that is meant to test prospective members’ dedication to the A’s, friendships and reputations (and the law) be damned.
And the mysterious disappearance is that of Grace Fairchild, mother of All These Beautiful Strangers‘ protagonist (and A’s hopeful) Charlie Calloway. Grace vanished from the family lake house years before Charlie finds herself in the initiation process at Knollwood, but the circumstances around the incident still haunt her.
The debut novel by Elizabeth Klehfoth has a plot akin to what you would get if you combined The Secret History with Cruel Intentions with Luckiest Girl Alive. It also happens to be the very first book-to-film adaptation purchased by Made Up Stories, the production company recently launched by Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon’s former producing partner and the powerhouse behind Wild, Gone Girl, and Big Little Lies. In other words: This is going to be big.
The onscreen version of Strangers is still awaiting a creative team and the literary version doesn’t hit shelves until July 10, but for everyone who needs something more than their well-worn copy of The Secret History to satisfy their cravings for academia gone criminal, EW has your back.
Exclusive excerpt from All these Beautiful Strangers
My father built the house on Langely Lake for my mother, in the town she grew up in. It was a hundred miles from the glassy skyscrapers my father built in the city, and a world away from the Calloway family name and money and penthouse on the Upper East Side.
The house on Langely Lake looked unlike any of the other houses in town, with their greying vinyl siding and slouching carports. No, the house on Langely Lake wasn’t a house at all. It was a fortress three stories tall, built of stone, with a thick fence and impenetrable hedges all the way around.
When I was a little girl, we spent our summers in that fortress. I remember slumber parties in a tent on the back lawn and afternoons spent sunning on the raft just offshore. I remember tall glasses of lemonade sweating on the patio and the sundresses my mother wore and her wide brimmed hats.
Once I thought my father had built that house to keep everyone else out, but then my uncle Hank found the photographs. They were in a shoebox, hidden under a loose floorboard in my parents’ bedroom. They were taken that summer, 2007, a few weeks before my mother disappeared. I saw the photographs and I realized I had been wrong about everything.
Because my father hadn’t built the house on Langely Lake to keep everyone else out. He’d built it to keep us in.
It all started that morning with a note, printed on thick card stock, no bigger than a business card.
Good morning, good day, some say, “Salut.”
Herein lies a formal invitation, just for you.
Forgive the anonymity of the sender, but you know who we are.
And we’re big admirers of yours, from afar.
We’re the opposite of the Omega, the furthest from the end,
Follow this clue to find us; we’re eager to begin.
The note was balanced on top of Knollwood Augustus Prep’s “Welcome Back!” flyer, printed in the school’s royal blue and gold colors, which announced that Club Day would be held in Healy Quad on Friday afternoon and encouraged every student to attend. This was followed by a list of all of Knollwood Prep’s student clubs and organizations. At the bottom, in delicate gold lettering, was the school’s mission statement to “foster students whose exacting inquiry and independence of thought drive them to excellence both inside and outside of the classroom.”
I might have missed the card stock note altogether if it hadn’t fluttered to the ground as I removed the flyer from my mailbox in the entrance to Rosewood Hall, the girls’ dormitory for upperclassmen. My heart stopped when I saw the note, for the first part—the sender—wasn’t difficult to figure out. “You know who we are…We’re the opposite of the Omega, the furthest from the end.” It was the A’s—the only club not listed on Knollwood Prep’s flyer and, in my mind, the only club worth joining.
It was the second part of the note I puzzled over as I sat in Mr. Andrews’s Introduction to Photography class. Normally, I couldn’t have gotten away with zoning out in class like that. Every class at Knollwood Prep was supposed to follow the Harkness method, meaning we all sat around a table facing each other, and we were expected to participate in the discussion with minimal intervention from our instructor. Some instructors even kept a notebook with every student’s name, and they would put a little tally mark next to our names as we talked. If, at the end of class, your name didn’t have a satisfactory number of tally marks next to it, they would send you a little note saying something like, We missed your voice in class today. Or, When not everyone speaks up, we all lose. Or, my personal favorite, You miss one hundred percent of the discussions you don’t initiate.
But Mr. Andrews was new, just out of college, and he was much more lax than the other teachers. His Introduction to Photography class had been the most sought-after arts elective this semester, not because of the subject matter, but because Mr. Andrews was, well, hot. He had that dark, rugged hipster thing going for him—flannel buttonowns that he didn’t tuck in; beanies to hide dark, unwashed hair; liquid brown eyes rimmed with baby doll lashes longer than my own. Also, he had a distinct edge over most Knollwood Prep boys—he could grow facial hair. He always had a perfect five o’clock shadow cloaking his well-defined cheekbones.
Today, Mr. Andrews hadn’t come in with thick packets of photography theory for us to parse; instead, he came in with a nice-looking camera with a very long lens, which he passed around to all of us.
“This is called a telephoto lens,” Mr. Andrews said. “It produces a unique optical effect, which can create the illusion that two subjects separated by a great distance are actually very close. It’s a powerful tool for capturing candid moments when you can’t get physically close to your subject.”
He clicked a button on his laptop and a photo of a lion lounging in an African jungle displayed on the projector screen in front of the class.
“One of the most obvious examples of this is in wildlife photography or sports photography,” Mr. Andrews went on. “The photographer would physically be in danger if he or she were close to say, a lion, or a professional baseball player up to bat. However, another, less obvious use is street photography, where an artist needs distance not for safety but to preserve the candidness of the shot.”
He clicked another button on his laptop and this time a photograph of a young woman and her child on a busy New York street filled the screen.
As he spoke, I stared down at the camera in my lap and fiddled with the zoom. I puzzled over the second half of the A’s riddle.
I have a head but never weep.
I have a bed but never sleep.
I can run but never walk.
Come meet me after dark.
The “when” was obvious enough—tonight after curfew. But the “where” was a giant question mark. What place had a head? Could it be a play on the headmaster’s office? Was the next line—I have a bed but never sleep—some riff on Headmaster Collins’s vigilance? Maybe, but I couldn’t make the next line fit with that. Okay, so what place had a bed? Like, bedrock? Could it be talking about the quarries?
Something hard nudged my shin underneath the table and I looked up to see Royce Dalton, the most popular boy in the senior class, giving me a look from across the table. I was slow to catch on, but then he cleared his throat and glanced at Mr. Andrews, and I realized the whole class was quietly and expectantly looking at me. I sat up in my seat and set down the camera.
“That’s an excellent question,” I said slowly and deliberately as I racked my brain for what Mr. Andrews could have possibly asked me, or a tangent I could lead him on to distract him from the fact that I hadn’t been paying attention.
My eye caught on the screen in front of the class, on the picture of the woman and her child. The child was upset, and the woman had stopped; she was bending down so that she was eye level with the little boy. She was reaching out, about to tuck a strand of the child’s hair behind his ear, to comfort him. I hadn’t noticed at first, but the woman appeared distraught as well. It made me wonder what had happened just before the picture had been snapped, and what had happened after. It was jarring to me that the photographer had captured this private, painful moment and put it on display for everyone to see. There was an illusion of being close, when the photographer was actually far away—not just physically, but emotionally as well. The photographer remained safe and protected, while displaying this vulnerable moment to the world for observation, for art.
“This may be a little off topic,” I said, “but your discussion of street photography got me thinking. I guess I understand the necessity of distance to capture the truth of a moment. But it seems ironic that in order to capture truth, you have to be duplicitous. Distance allows the subject to act naturally precisely because the subject doesn’t know they’re being watched. I guess, in the end, that raises an ethical question for me. Is that art—or an invasion of privacy? I’m curious to hear your take on that. I apologize if I’m jumping ahead.”
This was a defense mechanism I had learned a long time ago: 1) String enough buzzwords together to make it seem like you were paying attention. 2) Admit that your comment might be tangential to cover your bases. 3) Deflect with another question. With some teachers, the more tangential, the better, actually, because it made it seem like you were really considering the topic at hand. 4) End with a backhanded apology that hinted that your intellectual curiosity was leaps and bounds ahead of the pace of instruction. Suddenly, you weren’t the slacker zoning out in class; you were the deep thinker ahead of the game.
Mr. Andrews looked a little surprised by my deflection.
“Hmm…interesting question, Miss…?” he said.
It was almost endearing that he hadn’t bothered to memorize our names from the course roster over the summer.
“Calloway,” I said. “Charlie Calloway.”
A flicker of recognition lit up his eyes at my name and there was a slight pause, just a hair longer than was appropriate. That was a common response when I met people. I could see the gears clicking in their brains. Not one of those Calloways, surely? She’s not the girl whose mother…well…Poor thing. I could tell they always wanted to ask, but they rarely did.
“Miss Calloway,” Mr. Andrews said, his hand stroking his bearded chin as he considered my question. “Ethics and art. That’s always an interesting discussion.”
As Mr. Andrews started off again, I looked across the table at Dalton, who subtly lifted his finger to his lips like a cocked gun and blew at the imaginary smoky tip of the barrel. Killed it.
Thanks, I mouthed silently to him and he gave me a conspiratorial wink.