After the mysterious death of her mother in India, Gemma Doyle is sent to London to attend Spence Academy for Young Ladies. There, she meets Felicity, the most popular girl in the school, her best friend Pippa, and Gemma's roommate Ann. The four girls share a hope for something more than the expectations of their school and 19th century society and form a close friendship. However, Gemma is haunted by visions of tragic events that come true. In one of her visions, Gemma is led to the diary of a girl named Mary Dowd, who also attended the academy and suffered from similar visions. The diary reveals the story of two girls who could pass between the human world and others. Gemma finds that she is also able to do so, and she and her friends travel to the realms, a world where every desire, alongside every fear, can become real. She, Felicity, Pippa, and Ann explore the magical world on secret midnight trips that lead them to become more and more caught up in the magic.
Gemma finds her mother in the realms as well, who warns the girls not to take the magic out of the realms. Gemma later discovers that her mother committed a horrible crime, and the only way for Gemma's mother to be at peace is for Gemma to forgive her. During one trip they realize that something is not right. Before they can leave, a creature shows up and Pippa runs away. Gemma does not have time to find her, so she takes Ann and Felicity back and leaves their friend behind.
Gemma goes back to try to save her, and instead she finds the creature, which she defeats by forgiving her mother, an act that kills the creature, frees her mom, and reveals to her that she is grateful for what is real. After it is done, Gemma reflects, "In some ways, the mother I remember was as much an illusion as the leaves we turned into butterflies on our first trip to the realms. I'm going to have to let her go to accept the mother I'm only just discovering. One who was capable of murder, but who fought against the dark to come back to help me. . . . I want to make room for what is real, for the things I can touch and smell, taste and feel - arms around my shoulders, tears and anger, disappointment and love. . . ." (394). Gemma must let go of Pippa as well, who makes the choice to remain in the realms and cross over to the spirit world. Gemma returns to Spence alone.
1. The story makes a point about the role of women in society during the time period. The skills the girls learn in Spence Academy prepare them for a role that represents the repression of women in the Victorian age. Do you think that their trips to the realms allowed them to discover themselves and their identities or that they were simply escaping from the reality of the repressed lifestyle they felt doomed to lead?
2. When Gemma begs Pippa to go with her at the end of the book and tells her that she just has to, Pippa replies, "Have to. . . my whole life has been that" (395). She refuses to return to the real world, because there she is nothing to society but a pretty face, forced to marry a man she does not love. Gemma notes that as Pippa leaves, she radiates with life and on the horizon true love awaits her. If you had the choice to die and remain in a dream world or return to a life far from perfect to stay alive, what would you choose?