Three stars. I am nervous about floating a mildly contrarian opinion on this book, as I know that so many of you adored it and that it has been so wildly beloved the world over that it is being made into a film. Several wrote to say you could not put it down; one said that listening to it on tape nearly brought you to tears. Meanwhile, my reaction ran tepid or — better put — mottled. There were passages that read like poetry and the themes were rich, timely, urgent, and authentic. In the era of #metoo and the Kavanaugh hearings, Delia Owens’ treatment of the woman as “outsider” and the juxtaposition of her lone birdsong against the predominant village perspective was stirring. Execution was another matter entirely. I felt that the dialogue was absurdly stilted, the plot was patch-y and overly-cute (especially the maudlin scenes of a young Kya watching the drive for her mother’s return and the lachrymosity of her interactions with her errant brother), and I loathed the interjection of poetry, which felt lazy and contrived. I even felt that some of the novel’s naturalism felt overwrought and idolent: vignettes like the mama bird returning to her baby birds struck me as an overly simple metaphor to lasso in at just the right moment, for just the right weepy effect. That said, the portraiture of Kya’s father was riveting and complex and — in general — Owens’ deft representation of the multiple and often conflicting impulses and agendas that we maneuver around every day was striking. So, the book was lopsided: shallow in some parts, startlingly deep in others.
What interested me most about this text, strung up along the other books we have read for this book club, is the treatment of the female voice: its otherness, its othering, its silencing, and the laudable intensity with which so many powerful female authors are calling attention to that problem in histories big and small. Madeline Miller revealed to us that Circe is not a sideshow Bob, a circus freak, a second or third or ninety-third fiddle to the canon’s beloved Odysseus: she is a powerhouse with her own moving and righteous narrative. I loved the geography of that book, too, which I think beads nicely alongside the one presented in Crawdads: we think always of “the odyssey,” the journey of the plucky voyager as he navigates various challenges, always in motion, never failing. Interesting to think how such deeply-seeded tropes have shaped contemporary aphorisms like “keep moving” and “climb that mountain” and other metaphors suggesting movement and progress, and, at the risk of oversimplification, to think about how those tropes might be mildly or overtly gendered given the woman’s traditional role in the home. And so, we have Circe, who was exiled to her own island, shuttered and shackled in isolation. The book anchors us there for many chapters, where an equally brave and resourceful Circe reveals to us that there is tremendous will and strength of character to be found in staying put, in weathering the storms that befall us, in making use of the resources within our reach. She is placed there, yes, but she comes to own that island, to transform it into her own world, to till its soil and rear its livestock and cultivate her own strength. The song of Circe is more about the grit of survival under conditions that have been foisted upon her, unfairly, and yet made rich and meaningful under her purview. This is similar, in some ways, to Kya in Crawdads, who is more or less exiled to the fringe marshlands of North Carolina, to the very outer limits of human livability, where she finds refuge and safety but a painfully lonely existence. These “other spaces” that Circe and Kya occupy are both prison and protection: they are in some ways forcibly confined in them but in other ways liberated and even saved by them. It is worthwhile to contemplate how the domestic sphere has also traditionally been an “other space” women occupy, out of the movement of the male world, part sanctuary and part shackle.
We find echoes of these very themes of female strength, of movement versus entrapment, of alternate narratives, in other books we’ve read for this club: in Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, in McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in Gower’s The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. In all of these books, we find strong female figures whose stories are at one point or another obscured or misunderstood, glossed over or dismissed–and then we are invited, by deft female authors, into the deep recesses of their psyches and asked to pause and marvel over their tremendous riches.
So I read Crawdads in a kind of moody absorption, thinking how important its narrative is, how much it reflects about this day and age and some of the cultural happenings with which we are grappling. I took issue with the unevenness of the book but I dare say I’d recommend it to just about any girlfriend for the exigency of its themes alone. I’d stand by its placement on this round-up of what to read right now.
What about you?
Where the Crawdads Sing Book Club Questions.
+What role does the natural world play in the book? Specifically, I’m interested in Kya’s relationship to it. At times she blends, nymph-like, into its foliage and seems more “at home” outside than she does in her shanty. What did you think about the geography? How did it propel or stagnate Kya?
+Could this book have taken place in a different setting? Why or why not?
+Do you see Kya as a victim? Of what?
+What was your take on the outcome of Kya’s trial?
+The book presents complicated relationships between gender, the natural world, human instinct, maternal instinct, and social norms. How did you come to understand Owens’ perspective on this? I am thinking particularly of the line: “She knew this [she’s talking about the reproductive habits of certain mammals] was not a dark side to Nature, just inventive ways to endure against all odds. Surely for humans there was more.”
+What was your take on the poetry in the book? Why was it there? What purpose(s) did it serve? Did you find it effective?
+What did you make of Tate “abandoning” Kya and then eventually returning? What about Kya’s brother’s disappearance and re-entry?
April Book Club Pick: Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea.
Continuing with our theme of the entrapped, silenced woman: I have long wanted to read Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, a portrait of “the madwoman in the attic” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I thought this would be an interesting adjunct to our repertory while also inviting some interesting conversation about the canon, derivativeness, and literary “progeny” for lack of a better word, especially on the heels of Madeline Miller’s “re-writing” of a “locked away” character from The Odyssey. Separately, my sister sent me a list of “the best books by women” (dubious clickbait) and we both agreed that Rhys’ name jumped off the page. I’ve never read any of her work, and so she was on my mind when I came across one of Lee Radziwill’s last interviews (in the issue of Harper’s Bazaar with Cardi B on the cover, which I just over the weekend got around to reading), in which she wrote that her favorite book was Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea. I took it as a sign. Rhys it is.
Right now, I am reading this fluff piece and it is so hideously and painfully bad — but also a quick read and I think I will be able to finish it in two sittings. I often get asked why I read these lightweight pieces when clearly I have an appetite and preference for heartier fare. To this I say: everything in moderation. Sometimes you need a palette cleanser, and who cares about the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow anyway? There is a lot to learn about our world, our culture, etc. by reading “pop lit.” And there is a lot to gain from turning off the ol’ intellect and just relishing a so-bad-its-good story. (More of my favorite beach reads here.)
Also: just finished Michelle Obama’s memoir, which left me inspired and deeply respectful of her intellect, ambition, and overall goodness, but was so…produced as to leave me feeling unsatisfied. (The writing was quite good in her memoir, though!) Next on my radar: this thriller and Educated, which about 039480398409388408 people have raved about.
+I revisited my list of 10 books that will change your life and still stand by each and every one, so much so that I added the prefatory “Best of Everything” category to its title. I might add Circe to the mix at some point. I still think on it, months out from its initial reading.
+Love these affordable jammies for minis and micros ($15!).
+So excited about Erin Gates’ new interior design book — pre-ordered!
+Get the SZ Blockprints look for less with this $35 steal.
+Has anyone tried the much-buzzed-about Hanacure facial?! Intrigued…
+RL is running 30% off orders over $150. It’s a good promotion to stock up on sweaters for your children. I was just chatting with a friend about how hard it is to find really good quality knitwear for mini. I find that Gap, Zara, and H&M fail me here, though I often lean on them for other affordable basics — maybe it’s because we use cardigans a lot in this house, but they tend to show wear really easily, with collars that stretch or flip up or otherwise look raggedy. Mini wears a lot of blouses and dresses, and so she almost always has a cardigan/sweater on over top; I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s worth investing in knits . I like Jacadi’s cardigans and just ordered one of J. Crew’s Crewcut cardis and will report back, but have always had especially good fortune with Ralph Lauren’s knitwear. Currently eyeing this and this for mini and this and this for micro during the promotion.
+This pretty Schumacher cover is such a fresh spring print for a throw pillow refresh.
+In case you missed it: the comments on this post were especially thought-provoking.
+Still stirred/tickled/bemused/saddened/encouraged (all the feelings) by all of your heartfelt reactions to my desperate desire to get married.