I was lucky to score a copy of Daughters of the Wild by Natalka Burian on NetGalley. While it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was still an addicting read that I think a lot of folks would enjoy.
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The summary, from Amazon:
“A gorgeous, different, and completely engrossing book. Burian’s writing is transporting — and exactly what I needed right now.”
— Jessica Valenti, author of Sex Object: A Memoir
In rural West Virginia, Joanie and her foster siblings live on a farm tending a mysterious plant called the vine. The older girls are responsible for cultivating the vine, performing sacred rituals to make it grow. After Joanie’s arranged marriage goes horribly wrong, leaving her widowed and with a baby, she plots her escape with the help of her foster brother, Cello.
But before they can get away, her baby goes missing and Joanie, desperate to find him, turns to the vine, understanding it to be far more powerful than her siblings realize. She begins performing generations-old rituals to summon the vine’s power and goes on a perilous journey into the wild, pushing the boundaries of her strength and sanity to bring her son home.
Daughters of the Wild is an utterly absorbing debut that explores the female mind in captivity and the ways in which both nature and women fight domination. Like The Bell Jar set in rural Appalachia, Daughters of the Wild introduces a fierce new heroine and a striking new voice in fiction.
As I write this post, it’s been a few hours since I put down Daughters of the Wild – or rather, my Kindle. I was hooked on this read. I absolutely needed to know who kidnapped Joanie’s baby and what would happen next. That being said, I was still disappointed in this book in some ways.
I loved the characters, especially the two whose POVs we see, Joanie and Cello. Joanie was so much more than I bargained for – a true wielder of her magic, enigmatic and dark but caring and loving. Cello is devoted to Joanie, and while most of his story is about that, he still has a personality of his own. I also loved their sibling Marcela. She is stubborn and feisty and wants a life outside of the Garden, where the foster siblings live.
This book deals with some really tough topics. The children live in a cult, or at least that’s how I could describe it. I wouldn’t say the adults who care for them are foster parents. They force the children into labor every day. Joanie is married young to a man I assume is a full grown adult based on description, and has a child with him. The older kids all deal with physical and emotional abuse from the adults meant to care for them.
I didn’t mind all this, as I understand that’s a part of life. I also really like books with a gothic feel, which often come with some tough topics. Daughters of the Wild definitely has that sort of Appalachian gothic feel to it. I also really appreciated how the plot completely wound together. Every little detail and added character was all connected. The magic was also interesting, with an easy-to-follow lore. What I didn’t like was the ending. It was framed as a happy ending, but I didn’t feel most of the characters really got that. I’ll share more in a spoiler link below.
I did see some negative reviews on Goodreads which I disagree with. A lot of folks didn’t seem to understand the magical realism genre. Magical realism isn’t going to be full of spells and mysticism. Reality plays a big part in it. It’s supposed to feel like it could take place in the real world if you suspend just enough belief. It’s not the book or author’s fault people don’t understand a genre. (Of course, you’re allowed to rate a book poorly if you don’t like the genre, but the librarian in me just can’t abide by it on a personal level, LOL.)
A few people had an issue with Cello lusting after Joanie, which, though it didn’t bother me, I understand. The two aren’t blood-related, but I know a lot of readers are grossed out by anything resembling incest in the slightest – and again, that’s understandable. But I saw one review that didn’t think it was realistic Cello, who has a serious crush on Joanie, meets a boy who he develops feelings for. The reader described it as him “turning gay” – as if people who like more than one gender don’t exist. Also, the boy was love-starved his entire life. Of course he loves anyone who shows him affection. It made sense to me.
One criticism I have is “bad guy” characters being portrayed as fat. On one hand, this made sense for the story and the original symbolism of evil fat characters. The kids are toiling all day and are underfed. Back in the day when bad characters were shown as fat, this was to show that contrast. One would assume they were well fed (in fact, being fat was not seen as a “bad” thing during the time many of these stories were told) and might also infer or be shown they were not completing the same hard, laborious work as the other characters. But now there is a movement to shy away from portraying fat characters this way, because doing so gives the impression that fat equals bad. I personally understand what the author was portraying – that old-timey symbolism – but I think we need to think about things like this critically. It doesn’t mean the author did the wrong thing, but it’s something to consider that I would be remiss in ignoring.
If you can’t tell, I have a lot of thoughts on this book. Spoilers hidden in the link below, for those who have read or are curious…
It’s the ending that let me down in this one. Ultimately, Marcela and Cello both “get out” and start their own lives, but stay connected with their siblings. The other siblings and Joanie’s baby live on their own farm together. I get that Joanie has become very powerful and communes with the vine, so she has every reason to stay, but I find that a little sad for the other characters, unless they grow up and get out, if that is their choice.
As for Cello, I don’t know that it’s great that he wound up with his love interest Ben. 1) This is the first person who really showed him love and affection outside of his siblings, and I want him to find more of that in his life. 2) This is 90s West Virginia. You can’t tell me it will be easy for these two. Oof.
And finally, I need to know more. Does Joanie ever find out it was Sabine who took the baby and why? They’re living together, so if she did find out, she must have understood Sabine’s decision. How did they get the baby back? I need to know!
This book had so much going on – a lot going for it, and a lot that had me on the fence. Overall it was a 3 star read for me. I do have to say I am so thankful to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for giving me a copy in exchange for my honest review. My reviews aren’t always this long. I obviously was given a lot to think about with this one, which is a great thing. I also want to note that despite this not being my favorite book of all time, I think it would make a great HBO mini-series.
This book really pulled me in and I found myself thinking about it when I was away from it and wanting to know what happened next. While I really enjoyed the characters, especially Joanie and Cello whose POVs we see through, this book didn’t live up to my expectations. Some of the negative reviews I see seem to involve a misunderstanding of magical realism, and that’s not where my problem is. Rather, I expected the ending to be empowering for the characters, and while it felt realistic, it was kind of a bummer. I wanted a lot more for them and more than they clearly wanted for themselves. While it’s an engrossing read, it’s not a feminist masterpiece, and it deals with some tough topics like child abuse (mostly through forced labor). On the plus side, I really enjoyed the characters and how all of the plot connected so seamlessly. My thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for giving me a copy in exchange for my honest review.