Review of JULIA VANISHES by CATHERINE EGAN
(based on a review copy)
The truth is that I liked this book a lot, but yet still have a hefty handful of criticisms that might make this review look more negative than positive. The good about the book is subtle, not things I consciously noticed and admired, but I’m nevertheless aware that I liked this story despite my complaints. When I push myself to consider why, I realize all the characters feel very believable and I’m above all a character-driven reader. Add to that a sense of mystery that I savor, even if it does make the story feel slow at times.
Julia lives two lives. In her real one, she lives a cramped existence with a few corrupt if well-meaning thieves who have become her and her brother’s only family after their mother was drowned for being a witch. But she’s taken a job that requires she live another life for now, pretending to be a simple housemaid while spying on the household and reporting back anything unusual. She knows her mysterious employer is obviously looking for something, but she doesn’t know what yet. And, if she didn’t know already, she certainly learns by the end of the book the dangers of accepting an assignment without knowing exactly what that assignment is.
Moving into the book’s drawbacks, though, my primary issue is that I don’t like the protagonist, Julia. Not at all. She’s a despicable person, in my opinion. I believe the author makes a run at balancing Julia’s bad qualities against her troubled past, but personally I feel there are a million excuses for being a bad person. Ultimately, you decide whether to give in to those excuses or fight to be better. Julia is selfish, manipulative, and a coward. And the fact is I’ve read too many characters and known too many people in real life who have pushed past adversity to be a good person to have any sympathy for those like Julia. I did a whole blog post once on whether or not you need to like a character to like a book. I don’t, but in this case I think I was supposed to like Julia at least a little more than I did.
I sometimes enjoy stories with unlikable lead characters, especially when the character grows and changes over time. When well-done, it’s a treat to follow someone’s mindset transformation like that. Julia only becomes more and more appalling until a near irredeemable act initiates, to me, a too little too late change in her attitude. Even when she takes more admirable actions, it feels like she only does so to assuage her own guilt; she has no concept of what genuine kindness looks like.
There’s another side to my issues with the protagonist, too. Despite being our viewpoint character, Julia isn’t really an active player in this story. In fact, the book recognizes this itself, near the end, with the following line: “The great players here are the Xianren, Bianka, even little Theo. This is their story. This guard, and I, we are just caught up in it.” That’s how it feels. Julia is a close proximity witness to an unfolding story of significant magnitude, but her role seems to be mostly observer. Frequently throughout the book I felt myself reading about another character and longing to be in their viewpoint instead. It almost feels, at times, like everyone else’s story is more interesting.
Which is also part of why I kept reading, and enjoying, this book. All of the characters, Julia included, feel like entirely believable people. Though I frequently wanted to be in someone else’s perspective, I still enjoyed experiencing everyone else’s stories through Julia’s eyes and the combined tale is definitely intriguing. The characters include her protective, scarred brother of few but deliberate words; her creative, lost soul lover; her guardian of sorts who both shelters Julia and assigns her crooked, dangerous missions, to name few from a large cast. That’s not to mention all the awful types she encounters in her line of work or those misguided souls lured in by her innocent act.
Despite a good deal of criticism in this review, I liked this book beginning to end. For all my grumbles about Julia, I never found myself bored.