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The three titles I picked for my October 2016 delivery were The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend and The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. I really loved both The Wonder and Enchanted Islands, but I only got halfway through The Witches: Salem 1692 before giving up, and even that was a struggle. I don’t typically write negative reviews as I prefer to just write reviews for books I would recommend, but I am going t make an exception and write a negative review of The Witches in this post, since it was part of my Book Of The Month delivery.
Published: September 20th 2016
English nurse Lib Wright is called to Ireland to oversee a two-week watch over an eleven year-old girl named Anna who claims to have been in a complete fast for 4 months. Lib alternates in her supervision of Anna every eight hours with a Nun who is definitely less skeptical of the power of God to induce a miraculous fasting ability in the girl. Actually, Lib seems to be the only skeptic in town when it comes to Anna’s fast, and as the girl’s health starts to deteriorate, Lib struggles to make Anna’s parents, the town’s doctor and the town’s priest see the reality of Anna’s condition.
What I Liked
I have never read a book like this in terms of its premise – it felt highly original to me – though originality is definitely not unexpected from the author of Room. There’s no central romance, no actual played out family squabbles, and the child in the story is not a protagonist coming of age but almost a ghost of herself, being watched by the actual main character. If only just for the originality of its plot, the book is definitely worth a read.
I liked that each chapter of the book started with the definition of a word central to the novel’s plot. Using words that have multiple meanings like nurse, watch and fast, the author guides the reader to consider that multiple people watching the same situation unfold may have completely different interpretations of it. Like the novel’s characters, the reader wavers between skepticism and belief, questioning alongside Lib wether a girl can subsist on spiritual nutrition alone.
Lib, and eventually journalist William Byrne, represent the atheist or less ardently religious skeptics who believe there is a conspiracy behind the girl’s fast – that someone has provided sustenance to the girl in secret. On the other hand, Anna’s parents, her cousin Kitty, Doctor McBrearty and the village priest Thaddeus, due to their blinding religious zealotry, seem unwilling even in the face of contradicting evidence to let go of their idea of a miracle.
I knew that the end of the book would bring some kind of resolution to the mystery of whether Anna was truly fasting for four months, but there were two very big twists at the end of the novel that I did not see coming. Though the novel is not a traditional crime thriller, the mystery at the center of the plot lends itself to that kind of surprising final revelation and action. There were definitely a couple of points at the end of the book where I gasped out loud and even exclaimed “What?!”. It’s not many books that have twists you don’t see coming at least partially, so I enjoyed that The Wonder was really able to change the tables on my expectations.
What I Didn’t Like
I really loved the novel, but I do think that its characters were too polarized on the issue of whether Anna was experiencing a real miracle or not. The character of the Nun is the most middle of the road character out of the bunch – she starts out more believing and turns more skeptical as the narrative progresses – but it would have been nice to have additional nuanced middle-ground characters who expressed uncertainty about Anna one way or the other.
Not just a book about uncovering some religious conspiracy but one who will make you think about your spiritual beliefs, what constitutes a real miracle, and the meaning of life and death.
Published: May 24th 2016
This is the story of Frances Frankowski, a young woman from Duluth Minnesota who runs away from home at just fifteen with her best friend Rosalie. Frances and Rosalie establish a new life in Chicago, but eventually their friendship suffers a scandalous falling-out which leads them to lose touch with each other for decades. When the women end up reconnecting in their middle age in San Francisco, Frances is working for the Office Of Naval Intelligence, newly married to intelligence operator Ainslie Conway and about to be shipped with him by the government on a mission to the Galapagos Islands. And that’s when this novel about female friendship, childhood trauma and broken trust turns into a bit of a spy thriller.
What I Liked
The novel almost felt like two books to me, but I really enjoyed both somewhat disconnected parts of it, so I’m not really complaining. In the first part, Amend draws a striking portrait of a young female friendship, with two very believable teenage characters dealing with the normal and not so normal events that befall them. Frances is the quieter and more awkward of the two, while Rosalie has a wisdom and sadness to her beyond her years.
I particularly liked the section of the novel that showed Frances and Rosalie working together to build a new life for themselves in Chicago. Frances finds a desk job and is thus able to carve out a separate identity for herself from Rosalie, even finding a beau. Ultimately, Frances’ idyll is harshly interrupted by one of the most shocking and riveting scenes of the novel, in which there is an irremediable breach of trust between the two young friends.
I also enjoyed the second part of the novel in which a now middle-aged and somewhat boring Frances decides uncharacteristically to ship off to the Galapagos on a spy mission. Frances rediscovers her own strength and resourcefulness on the nearly uninhabited island to which she is delivered along with her new husband Ainslie. The scenes on the island in which France and Ainslie work together to tame the wilderness and provide for their basic needs are primal and raw in a way that is in contrast to but also in some way mirrors Frances’ rough younger years. There’s also a little spy action and a few violent scenes that provided a further unexpected element towards the closing of the novel.
What I Didn’t Like
Amend skipped the entire middle of protagonist Frances’ life, moving from her teenage and young adult years straight into advanced middle age. We get a few glimpses of what transpired in the meantime in Frances’ life, but I do feel like the book would have felt less like two separate novels if that gap in time had been a bit more filled in.
I also realized though that in telling two separate but very different stories about the same character, the author may have wanted to comment on how a person’s life can hold many completely different stories in it. Even later in life, you can choose to explore an entirely new chapter you never though you’d be starring in and that has nothing to do with your prior experiences, like Frances does.
A beautifully written novel that makes you reflect on the nature of female friendship and on how it’s never to late to embark on a new adventure.
The Witches: Salem 1692
by Stacy Schiff
Published: October 27th, 2015
This is the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692, which left 19 of the accused men and women hanged and an additional person pressed to death.
What I Liked
The first chapter of the book was an introduction to the book itself and the only chapter in the book that had a melodic rather than stilting quality to the writing. It was also the only chapter in the book that afforded a valuable analysis of the events of the Salem witch trials. It definitely initially tricked me into thinking I would enjoy the book. Not worth buying and reading the book just for that, however.
What I Didn’t Like
I really was expecting to love this book. Stacy Schiff is a celebrated nonfiction author who has won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife and muse Vera. I hadn’t read any of her prior work, but my interest in the story of the Salem witch trials made me think I would really be captivated by this book.
Sadly, I found the The Witches to be borderline unreadable – I actually only read half of it and it was quite the struggle. Schiff decided to structure the story chronologically I think to make it sound more like a thriller-like narrative rather than a traditional nonfiction book. This made the story difficult to follow, repetitive and confusing – not to mention dull.
I think the book would have been far more successful if structured more mundanely with themed chapters – for example one on the accusers, one on the victims, one on the nature of religion in Puritan life etc. Instead the book ended up being a litany of minor events one after the other that ultimately felt like they amounted to nothing, hardly capturing the power and drama of the events Schiff was trying to retell.
I gave The Witches zero rabbits because I found it near impossible to read. Unfortunately, the structure and writing of the book do not do justice to its subject.
Have you read The Wonder, Enchanted Islands or The Witches? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments.
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