The Fashion Magpie Where the Crawdads Sing Review

Magpie Book Club: Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

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.

Post-Scripts.

+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.

+Mommy and me moment: this in the pastel stripe for me, this in the rainbow stripe for mini.

+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…

+The chic-est plastic cup I’ve ever seen.

+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.

26 Comments

    1. OMG – I saw this! Another member of the book club sent this to me via DM. WOAH. The plot thickens.

  1. Thank you for your honest review of Crawdads! I haven’t read it yet (my tsundoku pile is out.of.control!) and think I still may when it comes out in paperback, but I’m bumping it down the list.

    I really want to join you on Wide Sargasso Sea but I’m wondering if I should re-read Jane Eyre first?! I last read it in 1999 — a full twenty years ago!! — and definitely need a refresher. What’s your opinion on that?

    Currently I am devouring Jackie, Janet, and Lee — a biography of Janet Bouvier Auchincloss and her two better-known daughters. So intriguing and I haven’t read a JKO book in a while, so I’m enjoying it! On the side I am also reading Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, which is absolutely fascinating and sheds light on a very misunderstood spectrum of mental diseases.

    P.S. I SO agree with you on having a healthy dose of moderation when it comes to reading. I, too, balance hearty fare with fluff, and try to mix it up between fiction & nonfiction as well. Speaking of fluff, I recently read Carola Lovering’s Tell Me Lies and it was enjoyable in a quasi-brainless way. On the meatier side, I also finished Makkai’s The Great Believers and it shattered my heart … such an affecting story!

    1. My sister asked the same thing about Jane Eyre. I read it like 10 times in school and so I feel fairly comfortable with my recollection of it BUT we shall see if reading Sargasso necessitates a revisit. Will report back if I think it does!

      xx

  2. the author of WTCS, Owens, is a nature writer. Read about her….This is her first novel. I thought the nature metaphors were moving and lovely. As a scientist myself, I was blown away by the writing. There are firm differences that only apply to the writing of scientific literature so maybe that is why I felt comforted by the book.

    1. Hi Betsy! Yes – someone else brought up her background in our in-person book club and we spoke at length about how additive that was to our appreciation of the novel. She certainly takes great pains (to great effect!) in describing the natural world. xxx

  3. Hi Jen, I haven’t commented before, but I feel compelled now! I didn’t feel quite as lukewarm about Crawdads as you did, but the funny thing about your review is that the things you pointed out (the poetry departures especially, and oy, the stilted dialogue) were definitely things that nagged in the back of my mind while reading. Sort of like swatting away an annoying fly before continuing to focus on the foreground.

    But I definitely devoured this book, and the descriptions of loneliness were so heart-rending to me; they felt familiar at this point in my life (mid-twenties, trying to become the person I want to become). I think there’s something to be said about books that seep into your subconscious like that.

    That being said, I LOVED Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller and felt like it took similar vibes (isolation versus companionship, self-imposed seclusion, etc) and paired it with a really cool Daphne du Maurier vibe. I STILL think about it months later, and think it pulls off what Crawdads attempts with aplomb. Give it a read! (Mostly because I’m dying for more people to read it lol, I feel like it unjustly flew under the radar last year!)

    1. Hi Annie! Welcome — so glad you chimed in here. A lot of the ladies in our in-person book club shared your sentiments on the book: they liked it, they devoured it, but they also took issue with some elements of it, especially the poetry, dialogue, and improbable ending. (We spent a lot of time dwelling on the lunacy of the ending and possible alternative endings that would have been better-suited to the book.)

      It’s interesting you honed in on the loneliness aspect, too, as we spent some time discussing what we felt Kya was a victim of — our communal answer was: “abandonment and apathy.” You really get that feeling throughout the book, and the loneliness is palpable, as you point out.

      Thanks for the Claire Fuller rec! I have not rad that and have just added it to my list!

      xxx

  4. Both this and Educated are on my TBR list! Currently finishing up The Coddling of the American Mind – super interesting! Seems like you would enjoy 🙂

  5. Wide Sargasso Sea is phenomenal! I still have my marked up edition from school, where we read it in tandem with Jane Eyre. I have recommended it countless times over the years and think I will re-read it with you this month. I am excited to hear your thoughts.

    Random aside: I thought of you last week as I was wandering around Georgetown and heard the unmistakable chatter of teenage girls dreaming of living in one of the store fronts so that they could easily walk to Visitation and be near the WaWa.

    1. OMG! Visitation girls on the loose! Love that; thanks for thinking of me.

      VERY excited for Wide Sargasso Sea, especially after a book that polarized our group (most of the in-person book club rated the book around a 3 or a 3.5 — hoping to tip the scales higher to a 4 or a 5 with the Rhys pick!).

      xx

  6. I haven’t read Crawdads, but thoroughly enjoyed MO’s memoir – I found that it really reflected her intellect, kindness, and down-to-earth-ness.

    On Educated: I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after I finished it. Such a compelling story. Curious to know what you think of it!

    1. Oh my goodness I’m internally cringing at my earlier comment because I meant to write that “I TOO found that…” I’d hate for you to think that I plagiarized your sentence. (Too many years in academia, ha!)

  7. I have this book queued up next – will be interested to see if my opinion matches yours!

    That linen dress is super-cute (and I’m a sucker for mom-and-me matches!). I actually love Gap’s linen popover shirts – decent quality for the price and an easy way to look pulled together with jeans or leggings underneath (I’ve even used them as beach coverups in a pinch). And that H&M dress is such a good dupe, but I’m over tassels – such a hassle to wash!

    1. I hear you on the tassels! A huge pain. Will be curious to hear your thoughts on Crawdads! Let me know what you think!!

      xx

  8. I’m so interested – and kinda validated – to read this lukewarm review! I haven’t been able to muster up the interest to read this book yet, but after hearing so many people rave about it I kept having this feeling that I should. Now hearing that someone else didn’t love it validates my disinterest and I can feel better about skipping it. 😉 (Plus, I generally don’t enjoy when poetry is randomly weaved into books, so even further justification to skip it!)

    1. Yes – agreed. It can be very distracting unless done very intentionally and thoughtfully! (And also — sparingly.) xx

  9. My experience with the crewcuts cardigan is it wears about the same as gap. Nothing like the RL cardigans which seem to never wear out wash after wash.

    As far as Crawdads, I must politely disagree. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I think it’s the “shallow in some parts, starling deep in others” that makes it a pleasurable, easy read for all.

    1. Oh man! Wish I’d read the J. Crew caveat before ordering. Going to be sticking with RL from now on I think…

      That’s a fair point on Crawdads — and I suppose it tugs at a broader set of assumptions I’ve never quite spelled out for myself that press on the notion of “what makes a good book?” Does every book need to qualify as “high literature”? (No.) Can badly written books be instructive nonetheless? (Yes.) Do I enjoy badly written books? (Yes.) Etc. Thanks for the food for thought!

  10. I was very excited to read your lukewarm review of this book. While I haven’t read it, my mom hated it, and we tend to dislike the same books. I was confused when so many people (you included) whose book recommendations I trust were continually suggesting it – should I read it or not? I still am not sure if I’ll read it, but I really appreciate your honest review.

    I never commented on your post about getting engaged, but I felt so similarly at the time. My husband was in law school and we wanted to get married the summer after he graduated, so we knew he would propose a year or so before then. At the same time the minute I knew we were nearing the proposal-window, so to speak, I all of a sudden became so anxious to just BE ENGAGED ALREADY! I remember feeling irrational anger when I saw on social media a couple who had been dating a year (we were going on 7!) get engaged. We went on a romantic trip the week before he proposed (we did not get engaged on the trip due to his very sweet impending proposal, at our alma mater too!) and I cried one night at the dinner table (mortifying, to this day!) because everything about the trip was perfect, and how was I still referring to him as my boyfriend when he felt like so much more than that to me? Later, he told me he was so upset and just wanted to say “can you wait seven days?!” I am so glad to hear your story as it humanized mine so much.

    1. Hi Natalie! Of course — trying to keep these reviews as honest and candid as possible. I am stirred by the commenter earlier that made the point that, essentially, not all books need to be “deep” and that sometimes a balance of the light and the hefty make a book more approachable and meaningful to more people. I think that might be part of what’s going on here. The book “reads easy” but grapples with some heavy social issues at the same time. So, probably, in the end, a worthwhile read, though I’d still caveat that it feels a bit jagged to me in parts. I didn’t write about this specifically, but I found that especially the treatment of “romantic relationships” was out of sync with the rest of the writing.

      And — AND! Thanks for sharing your experience on your engagement — it was so comforting to find I was not alone in my histrionics. I’m glad it all worked out for you (and me) but still look back with similar chagrin…

      xx

  11. Oh, thank God someone else was befuddled by the use of poetry. The fact that they were ALL BY THE SAME POET and yet this mysterious poet’s identity wasn’t revealed until basically the last page aggravated me beyond belief. Every time a passage was woven in I thought to myself “are we not supposed to remember that she’s already quoted this ‘favorite poet’ of hers multiple times?!” I thought it was a fun read, but I had a hard time seeing past the totally unrealistic (yet somehow predictable?) storyline. I think it’s definitely worth the read, but I had higher expectations given the immense hype.

    1. Yes, exactly! I can’t quite figure out why we had those departures into poetry. Was it because the author couldn’t find the right way to describe her emotions in prose? Was it meant to afford a different layer or texture to the text itself? Was it to impress upon us how quietly skilled and artful Kya was in the end, despite her lack of formal education? Either way I slice it, I’m not convinced it was an effective strategy…

      xxx

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *