on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Goodreads Synopsis: In Emma Donoghue’s latest masterpiece, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life. Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.
Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.
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Emma Donoghue is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors. She is such a master of weaving together compelling stories that ask tough questions and that you won’t be able to stop thinking about for days, even weeks, after you’ve finished reading them. I first fell in love with Donoghue’s writing style and storytelling abilities when I read her immensely popular novel, Room. Even though it has been nearly six months since I read and reviewed Room, Donoghue’s writing is so powerful that I still think about that story all the time and it’s probably one of the books that I most often suggest to anyone who asks me to recommend a good book.
Needless to say, when I heard she had a new book coming out this fall, The Wonder, I immediately rushed over to Netgalley to request a review copy. Thanks so much to Netgalley, Little, Brown and Company, and of course Emma Donoghue for granting my request and allowing me to preview The Wonder for my blog. I’m thrilled to say that upon reading The Wonder, my love for Emma Donoghue and her gorgeous writing has only continued to grow.
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So, what did I love about The Wonder?
First of all, I loved that it features a strong female protagonist. I was immediately drawn to Donoghue’s protagonist, Englishwoman Lib Wright. Widowed at the age of 25, Lib decides to become a Nightingale Nurse. We learn that she actually trained with the famous Florence Nightingale and worked alongside her caring for soldiers during the Crimean War. When she returns home after the Crimean campaign, Lib expects that her career as a nurse will take off but instead finds herself relegated to doing little more than menial work at the local hospital. Dissatisfied, Lib jumps at what sounds like an exciting opportunity to travel to Ireland to provide care at a private residence for two weeks. I felt sympathetic towards Lib right from the start, both for the loss of her husband at such a young age and for the frustration she was experiencing in her career. At the same time, however, I greatly admired Lib’s sense of independence and her determination to find more fulfilling work even if it meant packing up and traveling to another country to do so.
When Lib arrives in Ireland, she learns that she and another nurse, Sister Michael, have been hired to watch eleven year old Anna O’Donnell around the clock for two weeks. Anna is said to not have taken a bite of food for four months, but yet appears to be remarkably healthy. While there are many in her devout Roman Catholic town who believe she is a miracle child, there are some who believe it is a hoax. So Lib and Sister Michael are to observe Anna and document whether or not Anna actually eats any food. Because of her background in science and medicine, Lib is very skeptical of Anna and makes it her mission, so that this trip is not a complete waste of her time, to find proof Anna and her family are frauds. I particularly loved the fierceness Lib displays as she basically dismantles Anna’s room looking for any place where food could possibly be hidden.
Mystery and Suspense. You wouldn’t think a book that is primarily about sitting and watching a young girl to see if she is eating would be such an exciting read, but by having Lib so determined to get to the bottom of what is actually going on, Donoghue successfully weaves a sense of mystery and suspense into her tale. We follow Lib each shift as she attends to Anna and as she continues to search for any clues that Anna and her family are perpetuating a grand hoax. With each passing day that no evidence is found, however, more and more questions arise, both for Lib and for the reader by extension. Is Anna eating or is she not? If she is eating, why can’t any proof be found? If she’s not, how is that even possible and how long can it possibly go on? Is she really a miracle or are these seemingly simple people really somehow managing to outsmart everyone around them?
Conflicts and Tension. Even though the bulk of the story takes place in Anna’s tiny bedroom, Donoghue infuses the story with several major conflicts – that of England vs. Ireland, Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism, and Science and Medicine vs. Religion and Local Superstition. These conflicts not only add weight to the overall story, but they also create momentum by effectively ratcheting up both the tension and the drama as we move further into the two-week observation of Anna. Because Lib is English and a Protestant, she is perceived as an outsider and the O’Donnells and the townspeople do little more than tolerate her presence in their lives. When she then expresses skepticism of their religious convictions and of the strange superstitions that many in the village seem to embrace (a belief in fairies, for example), their opinion of her only goes downhill from there and thus any scientific arguments Lib uses to express her concern that Anna is harming herself by not eating are immediately rejected as ‘You just don’t understand the way we live here.’
It’s especially frustrating, not just for Lib, but for the reader as well, that not even Anna’s parents seem to have their daughter’s best interest at heart, which leads to what is perhaps the primary conflict of the novel: the moral and ethical dilemma that faces Lib — how can she just sit back and simply observe Anna starve herself as she has been hired to do when every fiber of her being is screaming at her to take care of this child and get her the nourishment she needs, even if she has to resort to force to do so? Donoghue does a phenomenal job of portraying the frustration that Lib feels as this decision weighs on her mind every time she looks at Anna.
The Bond between Lib and Anna. In a novel that is oftentimes disturbing because of the way everyone just sits back and lets Anna refuse food, there is a lovely and moving element to the story as well and that is the bond of friendship that forms between Lib and Anna. At first Lib is filled with dislike and distrust for Anna because she’s so convinced the girl is a fraud, but Anna quickly wins her over with her kind spirit, her piety, and her quick wit. As we move through the novel, Lib grows more and more fond of Anna, and often comes across as more of a parent to Anna than Anna’s own mother and father do. There’s what I would call a healing or restorative quality to their relationship and both Anna and Lib benefit from their interactions.
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Anything I Didn’t Like?
I liked the overall pacing of the novel and the slow buildup of tension and suspense, but I have to say there were a few moments just over the halfway point where my interest started to wane a bit. Thankfully after a few more pages, the action really started to pick up and I sailed right through to the end. Other than that minor lull in the story, I thought everything else about it was beautifully done.
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Who Would I Recommend The Wonder to?
If you’re looking for a light and fluffy read, this is definitely not the book for you. However, if you like a compelling read that will make you think and that poses tough questions when it comes to ethics and morality , then The Wonder might be a good fit for you.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is due out on September 20, 2016.