Lately I’m finding myself embroiled in a lot of stories that take place in the Southern US, an area of the world known only to me through books and movies. In my mind I can feel the oppressive humidity, the mercurial weather, the misleadingly murky swamps that mask hidden dangers with sharp teeth.
In my imagination, the South is a place where appearances are important, where small towns closely guard the secrets of their ancestors, and where even the most buttoned-down townsfolk could be anything but what they seem. It’s a fascinating setting for any story, but this one – well, it really couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.
Ethan Wate has lived in Gatlin, South Carolina his whole life. The son of two intelligent, liberal professors, Ethan grew up in a house that viewed the library as a greater place of reverence than the church with books scattered everywhere. Though he fits in well enough at school as one of the stars of the basketball team, he’s never quite felt like he belonged in Gatlin. He dreams of escaping the small town where everyone who stays is, in his father’s words, “either stupid or stuck.” He pins maps over his bedroom walls, adding pins for all the places he reads about in the books he hides under his bed. One day, he plans to embark on a road trip and see them all.
As the school year begins, he is resigned to spending yet another year trying to ignore the small-minded townsfolk. But on the first day of school a rumor goes around that there is a new student. Which in itself is something unexpected – no one moves to Gatlin. But to make matters even more interesting, the new student is Lena Duchannes, niece of the town’s own Boo Radley, Macon Ravenwood. Before she even sets foot in school everyone is talking about and judging her. The whispers around town have long declared Macon to be an outcast – a figure of mystique whose lack of social inclinations and family history has made townsfolk wary. Not surprisingly, Lena is viewed with prejudice – and no small amount of trepidation – by her classmates.
Little do they know just how different she is. As Ethan falls into an accidental friendship with Lena (that quickly becomes something much more complicated), he discovers that nothing about her or her life is as it seems, and even his wildest imaginings are nothing to the truth. As the story progresses the two must grapple with their feelings for one another and the dark secret that Lena is trying to hide – a secret that could tear them apart and change them both forever.
As the book continued I felt like the subtle hints early on in the book that I expected to be foreshadowing or important plot points that would become clear later in the book were left hanging. Even the important aspects or lines of the story that should have been developed just…. weren’t. Most of the book was spent on exchanges of inner dialogue between Ethan and Lena’s minds – all of which we’d heard before, and none of which did anything to develop the characters or the plot. I often found myself getting impatient with them whining about their fate and wishing they’d just do something about it already or at least shut up.
The characters (particularly Lena’s family) that had so much potential to become more prominent later in the book or impart important information and were left as one-dimensional bit parts, most of whom may as well not have been in the book. I kept expecting at least one of them to step forward and turn into an important character who could move the plot forward, but they didn’t. And don’t even get me started on the townsfolk. They’re all painted as stereotypical small-town, small- (and simple-) minded religious zealots. While I’m sure there are parts of the world where people are less tolerant than where I live, I find it hard to believe than in an entire town of people every single one of them was so extremely bigoted.
There are plenty of other details that bothered me, but I guess it boils down to a book that manages to be incredibly long but doesn’t seem to make use of any of the details and dropped hints to weave a complex and satisfying plot or cast of characters. And while the overall concept has potential and is interesting, the execution of it fell flat.
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