Seasonal reads on each end of the literary spectrum
When I read The Good Girl by Mary Kubica on a whim, I didn’t anticipate reviewing it. I was looking to pass time on a train to Boston, and the read seemed far too outdated and a bit too trashy—even for this blog—to justify its own review. I finished the book within a matter of hours [which may or may not have been more related to the fact that I was embarrassed to be toting it around than anything related to the book’s quality]. I followed it up with a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, which I loved from the beginning and knew I would review despite the fact it was released in 2012.
However, once I finished both books, I realized their obvious connection [apologies, Ms. Ivey, for cheapening your Pulitzer-worthy prose with a comparison to a mass-market paperback, but I had to tie it all together somehow]—both are set against the backdrop of winter. And yes, that is where their similarities end, but as winter is coming, it seems quite timely to offer up two reads that suit the season, on each end of the literary spectrum. Much like New York’s old ‘approval matrix’ [RIP], I’m offering a ‘highbrow’/’brilliant’ and lowbrow/somewhere between ‘brilliant’ and ‘despicable’ option for your reading pleasure. Let’s save the best for last and begin with the…
The Snow Child, native Alaskan Eowyn Ivey’s novel, follows Jack and Mabel, an old [for the 1920s, when the book takes place] couple who, after trying and failing multiple times to have a child, decide to move from their Pennsylvania home to an Alaskan homestead. Convinced the adventure will liven up their romance and offer a perfect respite from civilization’s everyday reminders of their failures, they are disheartened to find that life on the homestead is far from idyllic. When Mabel’s goods stop selling in town, and Jack is unable to shoot any good game or prepare sufficient crops for harvest, they’re ready to return home—until the night of the first snow, a young girl with mysterious origins shows up on their doorstep.
The girl, who calls herself Faina [who says she’s named after a Nordic word for alpenglow, but I believe Ivey invented it], doesn’t stay for long, but returns sporadically at first, and then consistently, until she’s close enough to Jack and Mabel that they consider her the daughter they never had. She provides them joy and fear in equal measure; they live for the evenings she dines with them, but she never stays, and once the spring comes, she doesn’t return until the next year’s first snow. Jack and Mabel don’t know where she’s going or how she survives, but they come to accept that she thrives on her own—with the help of her trusty companion, a red fox.
Jack and Mabel begin to settle into their life with Faina, but they have one problem; none of their friends have ever seen her, and are convinced the two of them created her out of a mixture of cabin fever and intense desire for their own child. They’re written off as crazy, until she decides to show herself to the one person who might just make her regret it.
Ivey is a master storyteller; her prose is intensely evocative, you’ll find yourself feeling chills when they characters do and being surprised to look out your window and not see miles of wild, unspoiled land. As a native Alaskan, she does her home justice, as I was essentially looking up Alaskan vacations [and am officially going on one] the moment I finished the book. The characters are, for the most part, the most irritating aspect of the book, but, as it takes place in the 1920s, it’s likely accurate; Mabel, the wife, is weak, seemingly unskilled at anything besides cooking, and scandalized when she realizes she’s mistakenly had a sip of alcohol. Her husband, Jack, is a solid and dependable man, though rarely interesting, and Faina, true to her wild and independent upbringing, is extremely selfish. There was one character who did stand out: Esther Benson, wife of Jack’s best friend, George. Ivey introduces readers to Esther as she’s cutting off a turkey’s head in a pair of man’s overalls, and she’s as good a shot as any of her sons. She’s comic relief in a book that carries at once a deeply and subtly melancholic tone. The book is mainly fiction with a few elements of fantasy, and though the end was far from satisfying, this one quickly climbed to the top of my favorite book list. Five stars for sure.
The Good Girl is perfect for a long break from holiday socializing. Quality of prose aside, the book is undeniably engrossing. Mia Dennet, the daughter of one of ‘America’s most influential Justices of the Peace’ and a beautiful but submissive English heiress, grew up in one of the most privileged families in Chicago. Like her father, all of his brothers, and her older sister, she was expected to attend law school and begin work at a prestigious Chicago firm. She chose to teach underprivileged children at an inner city charter school instead, alienating her family in the process. Mia has trouble dealing with her parents’ rejection of her planned career path and spends her teenage years rebelling, until she moves out the very day she turns 18 [so Kylie Jenner of her]. So when Mia’s friend calls her parents, concerned that she hasn’t shown up for school, they shrug it off, considering it typical Mia behavior. When a week passes, Mia’s mother begins to worry, so she brings Chicago Detective Gabe Hoffman onto the case.
On the other side of the city, Colin Thatcher is tasked by a crime lord named Dagmar to seduce Mia and bring her to him; his plan is to hold her for ransom from Judge Dennett and, Colin assumes, torture her in the process. Colin tracks Mia down in a bar and has her ready to deliver to Dagmar…until he decides instead to hide her in an abandoned cabin that his estranged father owns in rural Minnesota for the duration of the winter.
The book is told from alternating viewpoints; Colin [kidnapper] narrates the ‘Before Mia was found’ chapters, Eve [Mia’s mother], narrates the ‘Mia’s life post-kidnapping chapters’, and Detective Hoffman flips back and forth between narrating both Before & After [it’s not as confusing as I’m making it seem]. I was dismayed when I discovered, 10 pages in, that Mia was found, but Kubica still manages to give the book some unexpected twists. The end gets a little Stockholm Syndrome-y and weird, but once you cast doubt aside you’ll finish it with ease. It’s not exactly a festive read but it will put into perspective the fact that—no matter how much they annoy you over the holidays—your family isn’t that bad.