REVIEW: Wildthorn by Jane Eagland
Dear Ms. Eagland,
I have not been a prolific reader of YA fiction since…probably since I was a pre-teen (by my teenage years I had developed a taste for Stephen King and similar horror books, and didn’t really read much age-appropriate fiction). But I’ve read the occasional YA book in the last few years, usually on the recommendation of other readers – specifically, romance readers. Sometimes this works out very well (Jellicoe Road, the Megan Whalen Turner series); sometimes it is a bit of a miss (Twilight, though I’m not a hater so much as somewhat indifferent to the series).
Anyway, I stumbled across your debut novel Wildthorn and was intrigued, by the cover, the blurb and the novel’s Victorian setting. I would not say my experience was an unqualified success, but Wildthorn did end up being a worthwhile read.
The book opens with 17-year-old Louisa Cosgrove on her way to live as a companion in a family she’s never met. She’s obviously unhappy at being banished from her family home, but the story of why unfolds slowing, in flashback chapters that alternate with the present-day narrative. She’s accompanied by a rather surly older woman who has been hired as her chaperone for the trip, and as they approach her destination, Louisa is happy enough to be rid of her. She doesn’t realize that things are not as they seem. She’s abruptly dropped off, not at the manor house she expects, but at Wildthorn Hall. An insane asylum.
At first, Louisa is confused and sure that her presence there is some sort of a mistake. This impression is bolstered by the fact that she is addressed by the staff of Wildthorn Hall as Lucy Childs, a name that is completely unfamiliar to Louisa. She’s sure that she must only speak to the person in charge to straighten things out. It takes her a long time (too long, in my opinion), to catch on that she’s not at Wildthorn Hall through some strange mischance.
After Louisa’s initial introduction to Wildthorn, the story flashes back 11 years, and we begin to get an idea of Louisa’s character. She is a curious child, close to her physician father, often at odds with her older brother Tom, and a bit of a disappointment to her traditional and rather weak-minded mother, who wishes Louisa would be more ladylike. As the flashbacks progress (they end with the events that lead to Louisa being sent away and ending up in Wildthorn Hall), we also witness Louisa’s attachment and attraction to her cousin Grace, who is several years older and embodies many of the feminine qualities Louisa is lacking.
I had a problem with the Louisa of the first half of the book, chiefly in the flashbacks. Wildthorn is told in the first person, and Louisa’s voice feels too modern – she is often surprised and indignant about the restrictions placed on her sex in Victorian England. The latter would be somewhat understandable, but the former feels false – or rather, the fact that she is so continually astonished by what is expected of her as a well-bred young lady makes her appear pretty clueless at times. Louisa is given some leeway by her father, who encourages her scientific interests. But she is also raised by a mother who is nothing if not conventional and traditional in regard to gender roles, so when Louisa sputters in disbelief at some petty rule – for instance, about ladies visiting each other – it irritated me, and it felt too much like the author playing to the reader.
I also had mixed feelings about Louisa’s contempt for the traditional woman’s role in her society – while I understood her chafing at the restrictions, at times it felt like there was too much contrast between the important things that men did and the silly things that women did. I also felt uneasy with the relationship between Louisa’s sexuality and her unconventional interests. The implication seemed to be that because Louisa was a lesbian she would naturally be interested in manly things like medicine and science, rather than girly things like dresses and marriage.
I don’t know – I fully acknowledge that I’ve gotten touchier and touchier about gender-related stuff in books, particularly in romances, so I may be being unfair here.
The book really kicked into gear for me in the second half, when Louisa comes to understand the reality of her situation (at least in part) and acts to save herself. Here she becomes a heroine that I could admire rather than be annoyed by. There were also some unexpected revelations in the latter part of the book that gave some depth to the plot.
The prose in Wildthorn was simpler and less sophisticated than I’m used to in the YA books I’ve read, though perhaps not unsuited to the genre in general. I suppose the themes – the darkness of Wildthorn Hall and some of the familial conflicts, as well as Louisa’s lesbianism, might be considered suitable for older teens, though I don’t have any strong feelings about that myself – certainly, there isn’t explicit sexuality or violence, though the violence is still disturbing to read because of the helplessness of the victims. But the writing felt more appropriate for a reader at the young teen level.
There is a romance that develops slowly and really only flowers late in the book that is very sweet and sensitively told. I’m not sure about the resolution given the era – it may be more optimistic than realistic – but I still appreciated its optimism. It’s more palatable than Louisa’s early crush on her cousin Grace, which felt incestuous to me. (It’s curious because I know some readers consider cousin pairings too close for comfort, but having no close male cousins, they never really affect me that way in books. I don’t have any close female cousins, either, but I do have a sister, and the relationship between Louisa and Grace was sister-like enough to make any other relationship a little distasteful to me.)
Ultimately, the late twists that gave some depth to several of the secondary characters, as well as Louisa’s taking the reins and working to rescue herself redeemed a book that started out pretty blah for me. My grade for Wildthorn is a B.