Daughter by Jane Shemilt

DaughterDaughter by Jane Shemilt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. It’s rare that I would describe a novel as gentle and brutal, delicate, and devastating, but Jane Shemilt’s debut Daughter manages to be all these things and more, making it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Daughter is a slow burn of a tale which will appeal to fans of Broadchurch and the works of Tana French. The story is told in chapters alternating between the past (mostly set in Bristol) and the present (mostly in Dorset).
Our first person narrator is Jenny, a wife, family-practice doctor, and mother of three teenaged children. Jenny’s husband Ted is a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in Bristol, Jenny’s daughter Naomi is a bright and lovely 15-year-old with a starring role in the school play, and Jenny’s twin sons Theo and Ed are each their own unique, apparently functional, people.
The kids are showing what Jenny assumes to be normal signs of teenage rebellion, but Jenny knows that she loves them, tries to communicate with them in the times when she is home, and more or less assumes that all is well.
However, when Naomi disappears after her performance as Maria in West Side Story, Jenny’s seemingly reasonable ideas about her family begin to fall apart.
As if she is peeling an onion, and with results which bring real tears, Jenny begins to look carefully for the first time beneath the surface of her daily life. As she searches for answers to her daughter’s disappearance, she uncovers truths about her husband, sons, daughter, and ultimately, about herself, which irrevocably change her world.
In this way, although Daughter has a catastrophic event as its starting place, Naomi’s disappearance is really just the opening that author Jane Shemilt needs to begin to deftly explore the dynamics of family, motherhood, and growing up.
Shemilt is a gifted writer. She is herself a family-practice doctor with children and a husband who is a neurosurgeon. Thus, her descriptions of balancing family and a career, as well as her insight into doctor/patient dynamics are intelligent and thought-provoking.
Shemilt also has a talent for evoking a sense of place. Both Bristol and Dorset are described with affection, familiarity, and an artist’s attention to detail.
Daughter becomes more and more powerful as it progresses, until, in the final pages, I literally could not put it down. It left me feeling emotional, amazed, sad, but also, deeply satisfied. I think that the story will continue to resonate with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers for the arc of Daughter, by Jane Shemilt.

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Wildalone (January 6, 2015) by Krassi Zourkova

Wildalone: A Novel

Wildalone: A Novel by Krassi Zourkova

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow for my advanced reader’s edition of Wildalone, by Krassi Zourkova.

I have so much to say about Wildalone.
I’ll begin with what got me interested in the novel in the first place – the promotions describing this debut as a “bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre, and A Discovery of Witches.”
This description confused the heck out of me, because I was not a fan of Twilight. On the other hand, I loved The Secret History, when I read it 10 years ago. The gothic darkness of Jane Eyre tempts me, and A Discovery of Witches was one of those books that theoretically I should have loved, but which just didn’t compel me.
To me, the novels above all seem very, very different, and like they would appeal to distinct audiences.
The second thing about Wildalone which interested me is that Krassi Zourkova is from Bulgaria, and includes the myths of her country in this novel. I love reading about cultures I am unfamiliar with, so this aspect of Wildalone intrigued me.
The first several chapters of Wildalone in fact mirror Krassi Zourkova’s own life, in that she attended Princeton, and shares the main character Thea’s interest in art history. I was fascinated by the cultural aspect of Wildalone…seeing things through the perspective of someone newly arrived in the United States, at just about the same time I was going to college.
I was also especially interested in the narrator’s insights, because I had a Bulgarian acquaintance in high school. Many of Thea’s thoughts were in alignment with those I recall hearing from my high school friend, and so for me, Wildalone had an authentic resonance.
However, I will say that this was one book in which I thought an awful lot about the author/narrator crossover…how much is this really Thea talking, and how much is actually Krassi? In a way, this made reading the story difficult for me when Thea began to behave in ways that I found frustrating, or expressed opinions which I had issues with.
If I had thought of Thea as clearly a fictional character, it would have been easier for me to place her in a literary world and not feel like her views were being shoved on me. But as it was, some of the opinions she expressed about romance, stalking, and relationship dynamics made me uncomfortable.
Now to the nitty-gritty of the plot-the good and the bad-without giving away any spoilers!
Wildalone begins with our heroine, Thea, arriving in Princeton on a music scholarship. She leaves two loving parents back in Bulgaria, and, in coming to Princeton, is following in the footsteps of another Bulgarian girl, who attended the university 15 years earlier, and was found dead on campus. I’m being specifically vague here, as a big part of the mystery revolves around this girl, and what she means to Thea.
In short order, Thea meets two men, who both fall madly, instantly, passionately in love with her.
Here’s the Twilight part of the novel; we’ve got Rhys, gorgeous, obsessive, moody, with a potential for violence, and we’ve got Jake, gorgeous, obsessive, quiet, gentle. Who will Thea choose? Also, there is Ben (who I was secretly rooting for) the balanced, steady, sweet, friend who is always there for Thea, until she runs away from him to have passionate adventures with Rhys or Jake.
Also, Thea is searching for what really happened to the Bulgarian girl who looks just like her, and who disappeared 15 years before.
Also, Thea is investigating this weird mystery involving Greek legends, Orpheus, daemons, maenads, and the Underworld. This is encouraged by her art history professor, Giles, who to my mind is inappropriate in his interest in Thea.
Also, Thea, as an uber-talented pianist, is practicing Chopin, and then Albeniz, for major recitals that she is (somewhat inexplicably) given the opportunity to perform in.
And did I mention that this whole time, Thea is going to parties with her RA and new college friends, traveling to the Hamptons with Rhys, and taking a full load of classes? She’s a very busy girl.
Ultimately, for me, Wildalone was just too much. There was beautiful description, but there was so darn much of it.
The best things about Wildalone were:

1. The interesting cultural perspective that Thea had regarding attending Princeton, as well as the insight she shared into life in Bulgaria.
2. Some of the description. There’s no doubt that Krassi Zourkova can create a sense of place. I also really enjoyed her descriptions of Chopin and Albeniz…giving new perspective to interpretations of music. Except that it kept going, and going….

What frustrated me about Wildalone:
1. The characters. This, for me, was the Twilight part… basically picture Bella, Edward, and Jake, a few years older, and with a lot more sex, and you’ve got Wildalone.
2. The attitudes towards sex, romantic relationships, true love, obsession, stalking. In brief, Thea tells us that in Bulgaria, there is not a word for stalking, and that what her concerned RA sees as worrying behavior from Rhys seems romantic to her. I tended to agree with the RA.
I would never, ever, date Rhys. I would probably never date Jake. Also, I would never, ever have dated Edward in Twilight. So I guess, depending on your preferences/viewpoints, you may either find the romance in Wildalone sexy and passionate, or it may just make you angry.
3. The too-muchness. There was everything in this novel. Music, art (painting, pottery, architecture), poetry, Greek myths, Bulgarian myths, astronomy and how it related to myths, secret codes in old texts and how it related to myths. I love each of these things, but they were all happening together, all over the place. And it was all described at length. It made everything lose impact, because it seemed like everything was gorgeous, there were no rules, anything at all could, and did happen. When everything is happening, then nothing really seems that incredible.
4. So I got tired. I got tired of the constant beauty, riches, sex, perfection.
5. And, when the book finally ended at page 374, I thought, “wait a sec!? Is this the first in a series?!!!” Because Wildalone did not end with any kind of a real resolution. There was a bit of explanation, inexplicably offered by one character at the end of the novel. But the action itself, and primarily, Thea’s love life, was not resolved. I didn’t even understand what she was doing at the end.
Wildalone left me lost. And worn out. There were a lot of things to enjoy about it, but ultimately, I was left with a feeling that nothing had really made much sense, that I really disliked several of the main characters, that I disagreed with the main character’s ideas, and that I had been shown a lot of flash, but not a lot of brilliance.

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