I’ll often wander into a Waterstones to see what new releases they’re advertising and see if anything jumps out of me. I have this affinity for stars, so naturally, I was drawn to the book and contemplated buying it. Weeks later, I finally took the plunge and bought it upon reading the prologue and finding myself itching to know what happens next.
Set during the post Depression era (1930s), Alice Wright marries Bennett Van Cleve, hoping to escape her stifling life in the UK for a vibrant, adventurous life in the USA. However, as she settles into the Van Cleve house in Kentucky, she soon realises she’s escaped one imprisoning life for another. Needless to say, when Mrs Brady calls for volunteers to help out in a travelling library, Alice leaps at the chance to do something with her miserable life.
She forms a quick and strong friendship with Miss Margery O’Hare, who has a less than stellar reputation, and finds herself going through a turbulent journey as she forms new friendships, has her relationship tested and comes out a different woman to the Alice who entered Kentucky.
The prologue sold me, and I was itching to discover how this all happened, only to be brought three months earlier to an entirely different character, which then spent a good chapter or two just setting everything up. Frustrating, to say the least! However, while it was slow moving, the writing style kept me captivated, and I did feel sympathetic towards Alice from the get go.
What I Like
- Alice’s story arc, from being an obedient British woman to a self-assured, independent southern American – it was refreshing to see her be given the freedom to become the woman she always wanted to be
- Margery O’Hare, who refused to give a damn what anyone thought of her, gave Van Cleve a piece of her mind, was vulnerable and afraid in the jail, and was tender and loving with Sven and Virginia – all of it contributed to a wonderful three-dimensional character who did what she needed to to survive, but allowed herself to be vulnerable and open her heart up
- The librarians and the strong friendship they formed with each other and with the mountain people – after all, a community is built on strong relationships with one another, and it was wonderful to see how much reading changed their lives, as well as how far they’d go to help one another
- I loved how everyone got a happy ending – while I do think the ending was a bit too convenient, I’m very happy Margery O’Hare got her happy ending because she definitely deserved it, as did Alice and Fred
What I Didn’t Like
- How Bennett’s character was reduced to a plot device – considering how the plot centres around Alice being married to him, his character mattered so little to the overall plot that you could’ve removed his character and the story literally wouldn’t have changed
- How Mr Van Cleve was reduced to a two-dimensional wicked man – Mr Van Cleve is the stereotypical, two-dimensional villain, which means he acts as a permanent obstacle rather than a character I feel anything towards
- How convenient everything felt towards the end – I love a happy ending as much as the next person, but it seemed too convenient to have a law like that allow a marriage to be annulled, for a surprise witness to wrap everything up so neatly, and for Beth to just magically travel to India (where did that even come from?!)
- How badly women and POC were treated back then – I always struggle to read historical fiction because it always angers me how mistreated people were back then, and even though things aren’t great even still, it’s a lot better than it was
Writing Element Thoughts
God, I love her writing style. It has a descriptiveness to it that captures my attention and helps me envision what she’s writing so wonderfully. I could honestly read her writing forever.
The story followed the traditional story narrative, starting from an inciting incident and following through to the resolution. I will say, the climax felt anti-climatic because it felt rushed and quite convenient, but I’m also a sucker for a happy ending. The plot kept consistently presenting challenges and obstacles for the characters to deal with, alongside doses of positivity to give the characters some hope and happiness. The obstacles never felt too challenging that they couldn’t overcome it, especially with help from each other, or unrealistic in what they had to overcome given the time period it’s set in.
The characterisation was mostly great. I loved the character growth with several of the characters, but especially Alice and Margery O’Hare, who seemed to reverse roles in a way. Alice, who kept herself subservient to her husband like a good lady should, became a self-assured woman, maturing through her trials and tribulations. Margery O’Hare, who kept herself cold-hearted and isolated for survival, became a tender, loving wife and mother and opened herself up to her newfound friends. Alice became less afraid and more open to the freedom she’d been granted, and Margery became more afraid and less closed off from those around her, especially Sven.
Moreover, watching Issy change from a grumpy, disabled woman to a confident, mature woman who defied her parents, Kathleen change from a devoted wife get over her grief to help out in a time of need, Sophia leave the safety of her house as a WOC to help a white library, and Beth… well, stay the same, it was lovely to see Alice and Margery surrounded by solid friends who did go above and beyond for them all the time. But it wasn’t just the women: Fred and Sven deserve equal amounts of praise for presenting how a good man behaves, even despite their flaws, and who stood by their partners regardless of the consequences. I only wish Van Cleve had dealt with more consequences for his actions, but in a way, it’s fitting that yet again, a powerful white man gets away with it (like nowadays).
I’m now educated on the WPA Packhorse Library, in the same way they educated the mountain people who couldn’t easily access the necessary resources. Despite the slow start, I formed an attachment to the characters and I’m grateful they all got the happy ending they deserved (except Van Cleve, who really should’ve had more consequences for his actions). The overall narrative/plot and writing style created an engaging story that kept me hooked until the very end.
I’d definitely recommend reading it, to educate yourself about the WPA Packhorse Library, or to see what the power of a solid friendship can do when you’re feeling imprisoned by your life.