Review of WILDTHORN by JANE EAGLAND
Louisa Cosgrove doesn’t belong in her time. Victorian England simply can’t tolerate young women like her, women who won’t behave as a proper woman should. Louisa reads far too much for one thing. (If that’s a sin, I’m quite the rebel myself!) And this unhealthy obsession with knowledge has encouraged some ridiculous ambitions: Louisa wants to be a doctor.
As I mentioned in last week’s review, I did keep mixing this book up with another I read at the same time - THE GATHERING STORM - only because, in terms of personality, the two protagonists seem interchangeable: a desire to be a doctor in a society that forbids that for women, a mother who discourages such controversial ambitions, and a doting father who admires them. While Louisa lives in a world without magic, I bet you could plop her down in Katerina’s world of Russian balls and vampire princes - or vice versa: send Katerina to Victorian England - and each would behave exactly as the other did.
But back to WILDTHORN. Non-conformity can be dangerous in certain company and, unfortunately, it turns out to be such for Louisa. While she has always argued with family and strangers alike about the merits of her goals, she never anticipated that someone would have her sent to an insane asylum. I will say right off the bat that thematically this book was sometimes simply too depressing for me. I have already read plenty of others that feel similar, essentially about how poorly society treats the mentally ill, now and in the past, as well as using these broken systems to force someone back into their place.
I did invest more and more in the book as I kept reading, though, for several reasons. For one, for the first half or so I occasionally found myself bored because I was so convinced that I could predict everything. Then I discovered that the author had deliberately distracted me with “obvious” answers only to reveal more surprising twists later. For another, I found the characters flat at first, but then came to see that’s how Louisa is interpreting them. As she looks closer, so does the reader, and we both see a more nuanced portrait than we did initially.
This next paragraph contains a minor spoiler so skip if you don’t want anything revealed. I felt a little annoyed when Lou turned out to be gay. I would have preferred knowing that sooner rather than it being withheld as a big revelation. In particular, I dislike when I’m reading about a character who isn’t conforming to gender roles and then there’s a big reveal that they’re gay, because it implies that’s the only reason one wouldn’t conform to gender roles. Now if we know earlier on she’s gay, that’s simply another aspect about her that doesn’t conform - rather than an explanation.
I also found the story a little slow at times and think I would have enjoyed it more as a slimmer novel. I often suspected the author could have accomplished the same in terms of both plot and character development in much less space.
I love how the author “wraps things up” in this novel. Rather than the typical rushed ending after a dramatic climax, a good chunk of the book is devoted to aftermath. As someone who cares primarily about character, I adored that, because I don’t only care about the most dramatic moment but actually care more about how that dramatic moment changes the characters going forward. Louisa has always been spirited and the book’s resolution demonstrates how strong personalities can channel negative experiences into further personal growth.