April 21, 2019
(Review is by my wife E.J.)
SPOILER ALERT! Do not read this review if you don’t want to find out who killed Chase.
I am giving this book 3 stars despite my own annoyance at all the errors in geography, history, and dialect. I understand the need for a willing suspension of disbelief, but this novel asks too much of the careful reader. I found some of the descriptions enjoyable, and I think the book has a place in the categories of “chick lit” and YA fiction. Some of the prose is good; some is awful. Teenage girls will find passages like this one swoon-worthy: “Then, as she whirled around, she bumped into Tate, who had stood, and they froze, staring into each other’s eyes. They stopped laughing. Tate took her shoulders, hesitated an instant, then kissed her lips, as the leaves rained and danced around them as silently as snow.” (p.124)
Too often I had to put the book down and exclaim “What? That’s ridiculous!” Many aspects of the plot make no sense. Nor do some of the characterizations. Consider Kya. From age 6, she raises herself with almost no adult guidance. She is practically feral without access to health care, dental care, good nutrition or personal hygiene needs. Yet she grows up to be a strong, healthy woman who turns heads with her beauty and her “wasp-thin waist,” a brilliant observer of birds and a successful, self-taught artist. She is completely illiterate at age 14, yet in her first reading lesson with Tate, she learns the letters of the alphabet, memorizes all their sounds and reads her first sentence—not from a children’s book, but from a book of essays on nature. (p. 193) Anyone who has ever worked with a beginning reader knows this is impossible.
The novel paints a Disneyesque picture of the salt marsh. Unlike the real N.C. coast, it’s never cold or harsh or dangerous for a little girl. The animals are almost friends and there are no mosquitos or snakes. Hurricane Hazel, which devastated the N.C. Coast in 1954, when Kya would have been around 8, did not destroy her shack. In fact, it apparently didn’t happen at all. The author is supposed to be an expert on animals, but even some of the animals are wrong. Seen from a boat: “Brilliant white herons and storks stood among water lilies and floating plants....” (p.176) White egrets, maybe, but white herons are rarely seen north of the Florida Keys. Wood storks (the only North American stork) were first recorded in N .C. In 2005 and sightings are still rare.
When I read that Kya’s father was heading for Asheville to discuss his army disability, I thought “Why would he go there rather than somewhere closer?” Numerous references to Asheville follow as if it’s a nearby city. No one on the N.C. coast would think of going “over to Asheville” to buy a birthday present or pick up supplies as they do in the story. It’s a seven-hour trip today, but in the 1950s, there were no Interstate or divided highways, making it an all-day trip. Kya’s father tells her that his family was once very well off, living on a plantation near Asheville and growing tobacco and cotton until the weevils got the cotton. (p. 57) Didn’t the author do any fact checking? Cotton was never grown in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It isn’t the right climate. There’s plenty of cotton in North Carolina, but it’s almost all grown in the Coastal Plains with a little in the Piedmont. Kya’s father tells her how he was expected to become a lawyer and “live in a columned mansion.” (p. 106) If he grew up in a wealthy, educated family, where did he get his uncultivated speech patterns?
The characters of Tate and Chase, Kya’s good-boy, bad-boy suitors are inconsistent (two unlikely names for small-town Carolina boys born in the 1940s). Tate grows very close to Kya and seems to love her and consider taking her with him, then decides “Nah, she’s not going to fit in.” Suddenly, he’s heartless and cruel? He turns his back and abandons her completely while he’s in college. Then Chase, the real cad, nurtures a close relationship with Kya for a year to earn enough of her trust to take her to bed. Could he really maintain such false tenderness for so long while making fun of her behind her back? And would he sentimentally wear the shell necklace she gave him, yet try to rape her when he catches her alone? It doesn’t add up.
Kya herself is the most inconsistent character of all—a regular Keyser Soze in the end. Throughout the story she is gentle, reclusive, sensitive, hesitant, meek. Then we find at the end that she has plotted carefully to sneak back to Barkley Cove using two different disguises, planning bus schedules perfectly, luring Chase to the water tower late at night, overpowering and killing him, then covering her tracks and successfully feigning total innocence.
I could go on here—there are many more points of absurdity. I know this book is a page turner for its huge number of fans, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the close reader who expects more authenticity.