This book, y’all. It seriously made me feel some kind of way. And by “some kind of way,” I mean I experienced a multitude of emotions and opinions on the story, the writing, the characters and flip-flopped on my opinion of the book about five times. Let’s discuss.
The Nitty Gritty: Helen Oyeyemi currently reigns as a literary darling. She published her first story, The Icarus Girl, before she even attended university in Cambridge. She’s won a number of awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award, and she is included in the Granta List of Best Young British Writers. She’s kind of a big deal. Her books (from what I gather with this novel and some internet research) often deal with the concepts of displacement and the feeling of being an outsider.
This book has been touted as a Snow White retelling in 1950’s Massachusetts. The book jacket describes Boy Novak, a girl (yeah I know, already a little confusing), who grows up in an abusive household and escapes to Worcester, Massachusetts, to start a new life. She meets Arturo Whitman, a widower, has a brief romance with him, and eventually they marry. She also becomes stepmother to his daughter from a previous marriage, Snow (get it?), and then Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird. The main drama unfolds after the birth of Bird, who is born dark-skinned. Turns out Arturo and his family are light-skinned African Americans who have been passing for white (I know this sounds like spoiler alert but I swear this is on the back cover of the book). The story revolves around this tension of skin color and the power of image, and “Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.”
Accolades: This novel won the L.A. Times Book Prize in 2014.
Personal Musings: This book simply bit off more than it could chew.
First let me say: the story is divided into three parts, and Part One is pure gold. I was hooked with the opening sentence:
Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.
SLAY. What a way to open up a Snow White retelling. You already know you’re hearing from the infamous Evil Stepmother character, and Oyeyemi has already set up the centrality of mirrors in this story. Oyeyemi’s writing is quite sophisticated and glossy…it legitimately is top-of-the-class Iowa Writer’s Workshop quality (though I don’t think she attended).
The first part of the novel centers around Boy Novak, who quite frankly has a sucky life. Her dad is a rat-catcher and creepy as all get out. He physically and emotionally abuses Boy, especially as she grows older and seems to excel either in school or in looks. There’s an especially creepy-crawly scene that involves some of the rats Mr. Novak catches…but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. Anyway, eventually Boy gathers the courage to run away and flee to a boarding house in Massachusetts, where she begins life afresh. Oyeyemi does a great job in developing Boy as a character. She’s a bit distant and cold, and you feel that slight chill whenever she’s involved in a major scene. The negative result of a “cold” character as a protagonist, though, is that readers often struggle with becoming emotionally attached to that character. I struggled to emphasize with Boy, especially in the later sections of the book.
There’s a constant undercurrent of foreboding throughout the first part of the book – partially because I was worried Boy’s dad would find her, partially because the book jacket had promised a major bomb-shell with baby Bird’s surprise skin color. However, part one ends just as Bird is born…and then the story skips narration to Bird herself, as a freakin’ teenager, and it’s like 40 pages of excitement had been torn out of the book. Instead, we watch Bird get to know her half-sister Snow through letters (they are separated for reasons you’ll see) and her teenage struggle with racial tensions as a dark-skinned, half-white child. Reading Bird’s passages, I kept imagining a half-baked Scout Finch, but not nearly as charming. I’m not sure if that is what Oyeyemi was aiming for, but I didn’t have a lot of empathy for Bird, either. I didn’t dislike her, I just couldn’t really get emotionally attached for most of the story line, except with a couple of school scenes where she seems alienated or mocked (everybody remembers their angsty high school years, yeah?). However, I appreciated Oyeyemi’s skill in writing the scenes that help episodes of racial tensions and her play on images being powerful. Her editing must’ve focused more on this aspect of her writing and while kind of skimping on the character development.
When we’re finally introduced to grown up, ethereal-looking Snow, she ends up being yet another half-baked character. Her personality wasn’t ever really developed — I don’t know if she was supposed to be very good or kind or a little bit evil. I think Oyeyemi was trying to make her a bit of both to humanize her, and using her character to show that people often project attributes onto people however they want (Boy perceived Snow as fake, while Snow’s grandparents pictured her as the image of perfection and innocence)…however, I don’t think she really achieved this goal. Honestly I was just confused as to how I was supposed to view Snow. She seemed like a bit of a dud.
THEN, the book really fell apart in the last thirty pages or so, with a ridiculous twist. I mean, freakin’ bonkers. Seriously, when I got to this part of the book and I realized where they were headed I threw the book down and cried aloud, “Are you kidding me?!” It comes out of nowhere, but this genre of “twist” endings has actually been in a couple of recent books that I’ve read, so I saw it coming a little earlier than I probably would have otherwise. I honestly felt like the ending was a lazy way to explain character motivations, and it made the whole book go from a thoughtful and well-balanced read to literary trend click-bait.
…Also, other than the stepmother aspect, and the mirror symbolism, the Snow White retelling is scarcely there.
So?: 3/5 stars. Decidedly “meh.” I love Oyeyemi’s writing style, liked half the story, hated the gimmicky twist.
Who should Read It?: People who love trendy twist endings, symbolism junkies, books about race relations. Or honestly everyone should just read the first half of the book and drool over Oyeyemi’s writing and forget about the characters themselves.