Review: WONDER by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder

With my severely limited knowledge about the Crimean War, I always pictured Florence Nightingale as a lonesome figure, stalking hospital corridors with only a glow of light for assistance. A little Googling told me she travelled to Constantinople in 1854 flanked by a 38-strong team of volunteer nurses. During the War, the Lady with the Lamp trained these women in her pioneering nursing practices. Those who returned to Britain in the conflict’s aftermath brought with them a certain repute. Emma Donoghue’s new novel, The Wonder, shines a light on one such “Nightingale”: Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a young widow working in a hospital in London, who is singled out to travel to the Irish midlands on a well-paid but somewhat obscure mission.

 It isn’t until Lib has been deposited in a pub/grocer’s/undertaker’s/inn in a village outside Athlone that the bizarre nature of her assignment is outlined by the local doctor. she has been summoned by a committee of “important men” on behalf of the O’Donnell family’s only daughter, Anna, who is “not exactly ill.”

Lib’s only duty will be to watch her for a period of two weeks, in a schedule of eight-hour shifts shared with a surly nun from the House of Mercy in Tullamore. Such surveillance is required because, since the day of her 11th birthday, Anna is said to have consumed nothing but a few sips of water.

For four months she has survived on what she describes as “manna from heaven”, and because she remains mysteriously well, the parish is beginning to attract attention. Pilgrims come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the girl sustained by grace–a living, moving statue–and deposit coins in a collection box as they leave.

This is all happening in rural Ireland circa 1860, a place, we are told, the 19th century hasn’t reached, a country still in recovery from “that terrible failure of the potato.” The O’Donnells are simple people, their walls cemented with mud, their mattresses stuffed with straw. They keep shorthorn cattle; subsist on oatcakes, turnips and tiny, bony river fish; attempt to solve problems by means of votive masses and miraculous medals. This is a landscape steeped in “the enigmatic atmosphere of stone circles, ring forts or round barrows”, but all Lib sees is ugliness and morbidity: “flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish-brown peat…the occasional grey remains of a cottage, almost greened over.” And all she tastes is peat from the fire her food is cooked in, imagining that “if she did stay the full fortnight, she’d have consumed a good handful of boggy soil.”

The English nurse is scathing about the “shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless” Irish, always brooding over past wrongs–“Their tracks going nowhere, their trees hung with putrid rags.” She “wonders” at many aspects of the O’Donnells’ simple life: their farming practices, religious devotions and superstitious rituals– a saucer of milk beneath the dresser to placate the “little folk”, a slice of bread carried in the pocket while walking.

Most of all, Lib wonders what is going on with Anna, who appears, indeed, to be swallowing nothing but “God’s own water.” One by one, Lib suspects everyone around her: is the nun in on the family’s plot? Is the priest manipulating the child in order to make money for the Church’s “shrine-building fund”? But as the watch grinds on, the doubt that has collected inside her like peat softens into compassion. When that happens, she is able to set aside her litany of Irish prejudices and face the truth: If she doesn’t do something to stop it, Anna O’Donnell is going to die in front of her.

In the stubborn zealotry of the committee that has hired Lib and Sister Michael (the local doctor suspects that Anna is turning into a kind of plant, capable of living on air), there is a touch of The Crucible, but I was more reminded of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. As in that book, each visit to the afflicted child is more terrifying. The difference, both ironic and awful, is that while Regan MacNeil is possessed by a demon, Anna O’Donnell is possessed by the suffocating dogma of the church in which she was raised. In both cases, we are introduced to a bright and loving child who is, essentially, being tortured to death. Anna’s plight and Lib’s efforts to save her (initially reluctant, ultimately frantic) make this book, flawed though it is in some respects, impossible to put down.

When we discover the reasons for Anna’s fast, it feels just a little too gothic and a little too convenient. I would have been happier to settle for the heavy cloak of religiosity that lay over Ireland in the 19th century (and even the 20th). It would have been quite enough without adding the dreaded Family Secret. The best historical fiction shows the past in close-up, letting us understand how, in spite of its foreignness, many of its issues are still with us. Donoghue’s ideas about the non-traditional family do this well; sometimes, a child is “a bird in the wrong nest.” The Wonder is built on surveillance and celebrity, disordered eating and the fetishizing of the child’s body, but keeps mainly to the surface, leaving the sense that it could have dug in harder here. Anna is an empty plate, a “blank page,” a fascination, but her portrayal leaves us hungry for more.

One doesn’t have to look any further than Wikipedia to find the case of Sarah Jacob, a Welsh girl who stopped eating on the occasion of her 10th birthday in 1867. The local vicar corroborated her claims, and for two years she attracted gift-bearing pilgrims until, in 1869, her family consented to have her monitored by professional medics. When Sarah began to show clear signs of starvation, her parents continued to insist that there was no need to intervene; that their daughter was miraculous. In a little over two weeks, she died. Mr and Mrs Jacob were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labour in Swansea prison.

The first two-thirds of The Wonder sets a superb pace, but in the final third, it’s as if Ms Donoghue the novelist had had her pen taken off her by Ms Donoghue the scriptwriter (Oscar-nominated a couple of years ago for her Room). Heroes and villains begin to emerge; there’s even a love interest. The case of Anna O’Donnell comes to a close with significantly less poignancy and poetic justice than that of Sarah Jacob.

Fans of Ms Donoghue might find something to be interested here, but for everybody else, it’s just another entry in the ever-growing catalogue of mediocre suspense novels about children in pain.


Review: YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME by Sarra Manning

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me looked like a fairly predictable book to me. Even before I cracked open its spine, I knew it was going to be a typical romantic comedy, a prime example of “chick lit”, just like hundreds of books I’d already read, but was always willing to give a try nonetheless. Mostly, I picked it up because a person whose taste in books I trust implicitly told me it was a must-read. Needless to say, she was absolutely right.

Along the lines of the inimitable Bridget Jones, Ms. Manning’s protagonist, Neve Slater, is an intelligent young woman who works at the London Literary Archives, but she’s also a highly insecure person. Since her teenage years, Neve had been teased mercilessly about her weight. Over the last three years, she has taken great pains to lose that weight, but she’s still not happy. For Neve, happiness means a size 10 dress and a happily-ever-after with her intellectual soulmate, William, a friend from university who currently lives in L.A, and will be returning in a few months. Neve is not only physically preparing herself for their reunion but, as a 25-year old virgin, she desperately needs some experience with relationships and romance as well. Thus, after a super bumpy start, she winds up in a “pancake relationship” with her sister’s boss and charismatic womanizer, Max.

To cut a long story short, Max and Neve fall in love, have issues they end up resolving, and readers of the genre can easily predict what happens when Wiliam returns. And still, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a beautiful book I will read multiple times in the future. What makes it such a page-turner is the endearing way Ms. Manning has fleshed out Neve. From the start, her voice has an authenticity that I instantly related to. Even when it seemed like she was constantly cribbing about her size, her insecurities came across as real and her journey is one many women can identify with.

The manner in which Ms. Manning explored Neve’s world, showing how her issues affected not just every part of her life but also her thought process, and the change that came about in her as her relationship with Max progressed, was delightful yet plagued with the same issues a lot of feminist readers have with the genre of romance. Neve’s sense of happiness was constantly linked with the state of her relationship with Max. While their relationship is shown to progress in a very realistic manner, it was only when Neve was finally sure about her feelings with Max does she stop caring about how she looks. While that’s great for her, it still sends an incredibly problematic yet very common message. You don’t need a man to love you for who you are (as amazing as that is) to feel good about your body. You can be single and still live a happy life without constantly weighing and measuring yourself. That’s not a message this book succeeded in sending because it felt like if Max ever left the picture, Neve would just relapse.

Neve, when the story begins, is just another woman who was been body-shamed by society and its idolization of stick-figure beauty. Her insecurities persist despite having lost over 200 pounds because of the psychological trauma inflicted by her childhood bullies. The worst of the lot is now her sister-in-law, who lives downstairs and still terrorizes the hell out of Neve. An independent and well-educated woman, completely healthy for her size now,  Neve refused to see herself as “fit” or “healthy” or happy till she attained her goal of fitting into a particular dress size. And while this is a very common struggle, Ms. Manning paid scant attention to the body image issues of the other women in the book, like Neve’s younger sister Celia.

And despite the above-mentioned flaws, I really cannot stress how much I loved reading this book. I enjoyed the hilarity and realness of Neve’s narration and her blundering, romantic and utterly sweet relationship with Max. Of course, I love wicked, sexy, and surprisingly sensitive Max. I can’t remember his last name, but I fell hard for him. I feel like Ms. Manning could have told us a lot more about him, but whatever I read, I adored. Despite my problems with the trope, it was amazing to see him deal with Neve’s food issues and accept her for who she was, even at her worst moments. So while Neve’s self-image is linked to her love life, it is also glaringly evident that she has come a long way from the person she was, and like all of us, she has a long way to go.

Ms. Manning has written a compulsively relatable novel that kept me reading and laughing well into the night. Although the book tackled some very real issues, it was still a super-cute contemporary romance. I just wish there was an epilogue so I could read more. 🙂

Review: ‘Me Before You’ & ‘After You’ by Jojo Moyes

Romance novels have happy endings. The hero and heroine kiss and/or marry and/or ride into the sunset. They live happily ever after, or in the genre shorthand, HEA. Having grown up reading romance novels, I used to believe love was the most important thing. But no major literary critic has ever treated romance as a serious genre. Happiness is a frivolous dream; reality is harsh and serious, like a Dickensian novel. As a skeptical Harper’s article puts it, “Bad Romance: One genre and a billion happy endings.”


Me Before You

If happy endings define crappy romance for critics, the Jojo Moyes’ now-a-major-motion-picture best-seller Me Before You poses an interesting case. The novel is about the relationship between Will Traynor–a former high-powered executive put in a wheelchair by a motorcycle accident–and his caregiver, Louisa Clark. The two do fall in love, but they don’t live happily ever after. Will, paralyzed from the neck down, is miserable, and even Louisa’s love can’t reconcile him to the limitations of his wheelchair. At the book’s conclusion, he goes to Dignitas, the assisted dying organization in Switzerland, and ends his life. as Louisa, grief-stricken, looks on.

Not the upbeat love-and-marriage ending you expect from a romance. And yet, putting the ending aside, Me Before You has almost all the characteristics of a romance novel. As with most heroes in romance novels, Will is wealthy, powerful, controlling, and emotionally distant. Even beyond the damaged hero, though, Me Before You functions as a romance because it’s about two people falling in love, and becoming more complete, and more themselves, while doing so.

Louisa, at the start of the novel, is a lower-middle-class woman afraid to dream beyond her small English town and bland, exercise-crazed boyfriend. Will, before his accident, was, in his own words, a self-centered “arse” and a callous womanizer; after his accident, he is consumed with bitterness. Over the course of the book, Will broadens Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to opera (very Pretty Woman), travel, and her own potential. Louisa, for her part, helps Will overcome his self-centeredness, his bitterness, and even his depression. “I watched you these six months becoming a whole different person,” he tells Louisa, “someone who is only just beginning to see her possibilities. You have no idea how happy that has made me.” Will wants to die not because he is sad, but because he won’t accept the limited life he has, and the prospect of things getting worse. He even asks Louisa to help him die. “Give me the ending I’m hoping for,” he says.

The novel is heartbreaking because the HEA is right there, tantalizingly within reach. As I read the novel, I saw how it could work and how they could be happy together. At Will’s ex’s wedding, they share a dance together, Louisa sitting on Will’s lap in his motorized wheelchair, spinning together on the dance floor. Louisa, formerly a timid underachiever, transforms into a compulsive researcher who organizes a complicated last-minute trip to a seaside resort with Will. “I have learned so much, so much about how to make this work,” she says, “so I can do that and just be with you.”

But that’s not enough. “This could be a good life,” Will says when Louisa declares her love. “But it’s not my life.”Louisa professes her love in true romance novel fashion, and the hero not only rejects her, he decides to commit suicide. A more thorough refutation of the romance novel tropes is hard to imagine.

But, at the same time, the tropes are fulfilled. Because Will stays with her–in Louisa’s memory of him, and in the changes she has made in herself: her determination to go to school, to leave her tiny hometown, and to live a larger life. At the book’s end, as she reads his last words to her in a Paris cafe he asked her to visit for him, the two are together on the page. Which is, after all, where all romance novel happy endings live.

After You

I assume the unfulfilled romance of Me Before You irked a lot of readers who pestered Ms. Moyes about Louisa’s fate. She wrote a sequel, After You. Louisa, struggling with her own grief, tries to move on with her life in London, in part through a new relationship with Sam, and in part through a new job prospect in New York.

After You is a more conventional romance than Me Before You–which is to say, it has a happy ending. But just as the painful end of Me Before You is shadowed by the almost-happy conclusion, the happiness of After You is reached only after multiple suggested tragedies.

The first of these comes right at the beginning of the novel. Louisa accidentally falls off her roof and for a moment thinks she is paralyzed, like Will before her. The parallel is very direct: Louisa’s accident is recounted in a foreword, just as Will’s is. And Louisa herself asks the paramedic if she paralyzed. After You explicitly toys with the idea that it is the same sad story as Me Before You–and explicitly rejects it.

After You offers other wrong turns and unhappy, or mixed, endings, though. In fact, in some ways, the whole novel is a failed HEA. “Man dies, everyone learns something, moves on, creates something wonderful out of his death,” Louisa bitterly tells her grief-support group. “But that’s just a fairy-tale ending, isn’t it?” After You is about the way that the first book’s version of a happy ending failed–not just in that Will died, but in the sense that Louisa didn’t grow and change as Will, and the book’s readers, thought she would. Will’s death was supposed to leave her with a bigger life; instead, it turns out, it diminished her.

The HEA for After You is complicated, too. This is especially the case because the most resonant relationship in the novel, in many ways, is not Louisa and Sam, but Louisa and Will’s troubled teenage daughter, Lily. Lily, deeply unhappy, is desperately in need of love. Louisa needs her in return, both for herself and in order to stay true to Will. But caring for Lily interferes with both Louisa’s job prospects and her new romance. Would caring for Lily be a sad ending? Or is being a foster mother a happy enough ending to count in a romance? “That’s life,” Sam tells her. “We don’t know what will happen. Which is why we have to take our chances while we can. And…I think this might be yours.”

What chance is Sam referring to there? Part of what’s delightful, and pointed, about Ms. Moyes’ novels is that you’re not sure until the very end. After You isn’t as ruthless as Me Before You, but Ms. Moyes is a master of the wavering possibilities of good enough and is always aware of the limits that sometimes make even good enough impossible. Her other books suggest that acute awareness of failure is linked to her sensitivity to class and working-class British life. Ms. Moyes book The One Plus One is a harrowing record of the drip-drip-drip slow-motion desperation of poverty, a chronicle of how life at the bottom of the class ladder is a constant reiteration of ‘you can do neither.’ Happiness teeters over a precipice, and when it’s snatched from the edge, it’s almost a physical relief, not least because unhappiness is such a vividly presented option.

In Me Before You, and in her other romances, Ms. Moyes layers defeat over victory. But in that, she’s not somehow subverting romance. That’s what romance is.

Romance novels always have sad endings before their happy endings. There’s always a moment, or a lot more than a moment, of despair—a recognition that things could go horribly wrong, and probably did, or would. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is notorious for providing two endings, only one of them “real,” and only one with an HEA for the couple at its center. That’s supposed to make it tricky literary fiction. But really it just makes it an unusually meta romance. Everybody has imagined Romeo and Juliet happy; everyone who reads Pride and Prejudice gets through the bit where Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy stands. And to read Me Before You is to imagine a shadow fiction next to the real fiction, where Will, instead of saying, “It’s not enough,” says, “Yes, it’s enough. I love you; let’s live.”

In fact, those happy endings and sad endings only have meaning because they exist together. The HEA (or even the happy for now) takes on moral and emotional force because it insists that happiness is deserved, in the full knowledge that often it isn’t possible. And those sad endings are heartbreaking because happiness is fully imagined, and sometimes attainable. Ms. Moyes’ novels, and romance novels in general, don’t gloss over despair, or pain, or sadness. Rather, they take happiness seriously precisely because they know heartbreak is always a possibility when you turn the page.