Jennifer Donnelly has perfect pitch as a writer, which is an enviable talent, especially in a first novel. But then, this is an exceptional novel. I read it six months ago, and in the way of books that seem to breathe a life of their own, it set up house in a corner of my mind. I found myself thinking about the characters from time to time, wondering how they were getting along. I reread it last week, and it’s just as good as I first thought.
It is set in 1906 in New York State’s Adirondacks – a fancy outsiders’ name for their North Woods, as far as the locals are concerned – and Mattie Gorky, the 16-year-old daughter of a riverman-turned-farmer, is working at a local summer hotel. Mattie’s passion is for words and she dreams of attending college in New York City and becoming a writer, but she has promised her dying mother that she will stay home and look after the family. Mattie has also been given some letters by a hotel guest, and promises to burn them. But next day the guest is found drowned in the lake, and Mattie has to think again about her promise.
Mattie knows more than she first realizes of the young woman’s death – more than she wants to acknowledge, for it rubs uncomfortably against aspects of her own life – and it is through her developing understanding of this that she gains the courage to choose her own future. In doing so, she discovers the high price adults often pay for knowledge. She also discovers that promises must sometimes be broken, or, as she says, the promises may break you instead.
The book was conceived and published as a teenage novel, but it is a good example of how the best of that genre can merge seamlessly into adult writing. In today’s terminology this is probably a crossover novel, although its perspective – and thus its true home – is genuinely adolescent. In transition from adolescence (or a version of it, anyway; it’s the early twentieth century in rural America and there’s precious li
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