Penny Nolan lives in the Rosemary Flats--but everyone just calls them The Flats. Dilapidated and rat-infested, the roof over the occupants' heads is little comfort. The black mould in the walls is even more of a concern--apart from the health risks, it's making all of them smell. Penny and her friends Matt and Kitty are bullied at school for the stench. Right next door is a beautiful mansion called the Lavender House, where the mysterious Violet Fitzsimons lives. People say she's laid traps in the yard and that she kidnaps children. But the one time that Penny saw her--while recovering a Frisbee thrown over her fence--she seemed normal.
It's not until Penny finds Violet's cat Bluebell that everything changes. Bluebell has eaten some of the rat poison that the caretaker has left out for the rats. Penny knows that for all her inborn fear of Violet, she can't allow Bluebell to die. She knocks on the door of Lavender House and is welcomed into an entirely new world.
Violet and Penny strike up a friendship when Violet offers to teach Penny music. Penny is an excellent student, unlike her best friends Matt and Kitty, and she's not averse to study or hard work. And Violet says she has talent--under her tutelage she blossoms. Violet often reminisces about her time spent at her school, Pearlbourne Academy, and Penny starts to dream of going there herself. She longs to be challenged, and to become someone important. Most of all, she longs to be rich. Time spent in the houses of rich people for her window-washing job have filled her head with dreams of financial security and luxury.
Penny applies for a scholarship to go to Pearlbourne and is rejected. Downcast, she's sure all her dreams will come to nothing. But then Violet disappears--she says she's going on a long trip--and leaves a colossal amount of money in Penny's bank account. Suddenly, Penny has the money to accomplish anything she wants. She buys gifts for everyone in the building, and then pays for the black mould to be removed from the walls while everyone enjoys an all-expenses-paid trip to the seaside. Most importantly, she has the money to reinvent herself. She comes up with a new identity--Lola Nolan-Fitzsimons--and reapplies to Pearlbourne with Violet's recommendation. When she's accepted, she knows the road is going to be hard but worth it.
At her new school, Penny lies about her family and her wealth in order to fit in. She claims to be Violet's grandniece. At first, the other girls aren't sure what to make of her--but over time, as her musical studies put her near the top of her year and her careful observation helps her to blend in, everyone starts to love her. Everyone except Allegra, one of her dorm-mates. Allegra is suspicious of Penny's fictitious past. Meanwhile, Penny is slowly losing contact with Matt, Kitty, and her mother. Worse, it's getting harder and harder to contact Violet.
When Penny is voted in as spring prefect, she finds out that one of her responsibilities is to throw a party for her classmates and teachers over the winter holidays. She decides to use Lavender House, thinking that it will solidify her backstory, but she can't contact Violet at all for permission. When she returns home, she's confronted by Matt and Kitty, who feel abandoned by her, and she tells them she can't spare any time for them. The party goes off without a hitch until Allegra reveals that, talking to a grocery store owner just down the road, she's discovered the truth of Penny's past. Penny admits to everything, saying she didn't know how to come clean about her past, and that she'd only lied because she was so worried about fitting in. All her guests leave, and Penny goes out to the pier to think. She realises she's alienated everyone in her life with her greed.
To her surprise, her friend Jane from school follows her to the pier. She's accompanied by Violet, who has returned from overseas, and Matt and Kitty. They point out to Penny that though she lied and was blinded by the money she'd come into, she still did her best to care for the people living in the Flats and worked incredibly hard for her position for the school. Violet reveals the reason for her absence: Penny reminded her of her sister, who was expelled from school for being in a relationship with one of the other girls, and she had travelled to Mexico to find her. She and Rosemary have been reunited.
Despite Penny's fears of being rejected, and the school's bias against people of lower socio-economic status, she's proven her potential. A little reality check has reminded her of her connections to her friends and family, and she returns to Pearlbourne with plans for her prefecture, finally free to be herself.
A highly enjoyable read which looks at class divisions, wealth, hard work, truth, and prejudice. Penny proves herself over and over as someone who has the talent and dedication to rise up in the world, but without the advantages that money provides her, it's still impossible. Her case shows the faculty at Pearlbourne that their scholarship system is flawed, and her caring nature and resilience bring hope into the lives of the people around her--from an old rich woman to an impoverished teenager. It's incredibly satisfying to see her get everything she worked for.