There may be spoilers below. I’ll try not to give away too much, but our understanding of what spoils a tale might differ – I’m the kind of person who reads full plot synopsizes and think pieces before even beginning a book, movie, or show.
Set in Ireland just seven years after the great famine, Donoghue’s protagonist, an English nurse named Lib, is hired to keep bedside watch of a local “wonder;” an eleven year old girl who hasn’t eaten in four months and, yet, survives. The child, Anna O’Donnell, claims the last morsel she’s consumed has been the host (the Catholic term for a communion cracker) on the day of her Confirmation.
On beginning her watch, Lib finds the child skinny but bright and alert. Nurse Lib’s commitment to the scientific process is questioned; could this case truly be miraculous? However, as weeks go by, pious Anna becomes increasingly ill and still, will not eat. Even as the child faces death, her community and church paint her a saint and a martyr. “Godless” Lib is the only figure in the child’s life willing to bunk dogma and rescue her from death.
This book was an engaging read and because of that it was a quick read. I really couldn’t put the text down, which I consider the most important test for a book to pass because if it doesn’t hook me within ten pages I walk away (there’s too much greatness out there and so short my life to struggle through something not meant for me). The writing is absolutely beautiful and as someone only two generations removed from Irish citizenship, I really enjoyed Donoghue’s descriptions of place. She also seamlessly weaves historical fact into the story, which I appreciate and found endlessly interesting.
However, I wasn’t satisfied by protagonist’s character arc. The story started with a science-bound English woman contemptuous of Irish Catholic faith… and ended very much the same way. I expected, and kept expecting, Lib to experience some come-to-Jesus moment (that’s a pun); some way in which she softened to the idea of mysteries of the heart and ‘wonder’ in our world (that is not to say I was hoping for a religious conversion – the people of faith in this story were super bonkers and I’d never want that for our intelligent Lib). In the end, she places her trust in a man she barely knows… is that Lib’s newfound faith? It’s not enough for me. I suppose on the same token, the extremely pious Anna doesn’t change, but is tricked into survival by her unquestionable faith and Lib’s cleverness. Is Donoghue making an argument that those without faith will never achieve it, and those consumed by it will never truly be free? It’s unclear.
Likewise, I was disappointed by the story’s twist. At almost the very end of the book, we find out why the child is starving herself, but there is very little foreshadowing or hinting at the trauma she experienced before Lib’s arrival. Because of this, the twist feels a little too convenient; too easy.
While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Donoghue’s earlier stunner, “Room,” I’m glad I read the book. Are you looking for an engaging read in the dark of winter, something mysterious you won’t be able to put down; something a little gothic and stormy and wet? This might be the one for you.
Something kind of uncanny happened while I was reading this book, and as someone who is interested in signs from the universe and mysterious divine intervention, it really made me take pause.
I was watching Lady Dynamite on Netflix as I read The Wonder (two things which could not be more different). It is very usual for me to do this – since childhood I have listened to music and studied and written and watched tv and held conversations all at the same time (I recently read the ability to successfully carry out all these tasks simultaneously is actually a sign of ADHD in women. Hmm.)
Anyway, as I’m reading, my eyes cross over a scene in which Nurse Lib quotes Hamlet, saying she “must be cruel only to be kind.” In the very next moment, Maria Bamford, the star of Lady Dynamite, spoke the exact same quote! I thought I had a stroke, so I paused the show and reread the page – yup, Nurse Lib said that. Then I rewinded Netflix and – yup, Bamford just said it too! At almost the exact same time!!
What are you telling me, universe?? To whom must I be cruel to be kind?!?
From the moment someone blows your mind with a latching tip or you realize poop-explosioned onsies are designed to be stripped off your baby shoulders-down instead of poopy-crotch up, you realize parenting is just a race of aha-epiphanies and we’re all just learning as we go. This week I solved a current parenting dilemma with such an eureka moment.
I usually read classics to the kids in bed – Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time, The BFG – and I love it, because by sharing novels we get to discuss them for months or years to come (and check out the movies with greater appreciation for story!). But lately my eldest has been sulking at bedtime. My reading to them (she and her sister share a room) cuts into her personal reading time.
At nine years old, Cailena is really into Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels. But the medium is not read-aloud friendly, so she huffs from the top bunk and ignores the bedtime stories I read to Chloe, reading her own instead. I was sad. Were these years really over so soon? Could Cailena and I no longer bond over shared reading?
Then, an epiphany: just read her books yourself, you dolt! So I asked Cailena if I could borrow the copy of “Sisters” she’d taken out from the library and finished reading. My kid was delighted.
“I’d love that, Mom! We’ll have so much to talk about!”
(mommy daughter book club say what?)
As I read “Sisters,” Caily all but perched on my shoulder, pointing out favourite bits. Oh, you’ll like this part, Mom! See, Raina gets her own room! The book was really fun, and totally got us excited for the road trip our family is planning in the summer (the comic follows two sisters annoying each other during a long trip to a family reunion).
The book is really kid-friendly, sweet, and relatable, and beautifully weaves in a sadder (but not histrionic) experience: the kids realize their parents are considering divorce. Or rather, the little sister, Amara, has known for sometime. When Raina (our autobiographical protagonist) expresses her surprise at this, Amara lays down some truth; Raina’s always wearing headphones and hanging out in her room. You don’t pay attention, she says, and poor Amara has had to carry her fear all alone (which, as the eldest of five, I can confirm is the worst thing for a big sister to hear.)
I was so impressed with Telgemeier’s book that I went out the next day and dropped not-a-little amount of money on her The Babysitter’s Club collection; graphic novels adapted from the Ann M. Martin’s novel series. The collection includes four books and were read (by Cailena) in five days. I have yet to start the first book (although I will soon, my daughter won’t give me rest until I do).
If you have a girl between eight and twelve years old, introduce them to this author’s books, and read them yourself too! Telgemeier is joining the ranks of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, creating ‘girl’s life’ reading to be cherished by mothers and daughters alike.