“She was no longer writing about tragedies that blew apart peoples lives, but about something else entirely: how dreams could keep hope alive and fresh.”
Getting this book was kind of a big deal for me. Okay, it was a really big deal. This was the first physical ARC I ever received. I’ll be honest: being asked to review this book made me feel kind of special, which was a large part of the reason I accepted it. When the book was delivered, I was tentatively excited, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath that it was going to be any good. And I wasn’t going to lie and say that it was amazing if it wasn’t, though I would’ve tried to soften the blow the best I could, because I hate to hurt anyone’s feelings, even if the author never read my review. But it turns out that I needn’t have worried.
I can’t believe this is a debut novel. The plot was great; it was subtle and vast and beautiful. The characters, especially Ashby herself, were tangibly real. But the prose is what set the book apart for me. The writing is absolutely stunning. There’s a blurb on the front comparing Wolas to J.D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion, and I never at any point in the book felt like that comparison was unmerited, something slapped on the cover to increase sales. It took me almost a month to read this book, but not because of its length or a lack of interest on my part. I was savoring.
Some books are like popcorn, light and addictive and demands to be finished in one sitting. Some books are like a steak, juicy and filling and satisfying of some deeper hunger that only red meat can appease. Others are like some exotic dish that confuses your tongue but leaves it craving more, even if you can never quite understand the flavors. Some are ice cream, and while a spoonful or two may satisfy your sweet tooth, you can’t help but eat the entire carton and live with the regret when your stomach rebels. But Wolas’s book was none of those things. Ashby’s tale is an expensive box of rich, smooth chocolate truffles, meant to be savored with tiny bites and closed eyes as the chocolate melts on your tongue, a decadence meant to be stretched as long as possible.
Joan Ashby is a rare author, a genius of a girl who has always been a woman. She had wild success at a young age, but life changed dramatically for her after she met Martin, and she disappeared from the literary scene. Wolas’s book is about Ashby’s efforts to make the most of a life she never wanted, and her journey back to the life she thought she had lost. What would you do if you had to sacrifice the life you loved to fulfill the dream of another, even if that dream of theirs is a betrayal? And if you made that sacrifice, and even managed to love your new life a little, how could you justify the regret, and the guilt that stemmed from that regret? Would you hide your soul, and damn the consequences?
I can’t keep anything hidden. I’m an open book to any and everyone in my life, as you've probably gathered know from my reviews. I can be an oversharer, without a doubt. So while I can understand the need to keep some part of yourself private, I can’t understand the actual practice of that level of secrecy. I feel like a lot of trauma could be avoided by discussion. But I have lived a rare life, one straight out of a storybook, so I know a big part of my mindset about secrets comes from a place of intentional naïvety. But I still hold to the belief that honesty and transparency strengthen relationships tremendously. That being said, do I understand Ashby’s desperation for privacy? I do indeed. Even when I didn’t agree with Ashby’s decisions, I understood them, which I think is an incredibly difficult understanding for a writer to cultivate among her readers.
Something else I thought was wonderful was the fact that I kept forgetting that this was a novel and not a memoir of an actual author. As I said before, Joan Ashby was tangibly real. And Ashby’s writing was so convincing that I desperately wanted to go buy her short story collections. I wanted to read the works she buried, the works lost to her, the words she had yet to pen. If they actually existed, I would have bought them in a heartbeat. I want to read more of Ashby’s words, even though Ashby isn’t real. And even more than that, this novel made me want to write, to struggle and strive until I craft something exquisite from the same 26 letters Wolas and her creation wielded in such marvelous ways.
“But weren’t people ultimately and irrevocably lost if they abandoned those dreams, ceased trying to create a rich alternative world, for themselves and for others? Wasn’t the beauty of art found in the uncovering and discovering, in being taken, or led, to the line, the step, the curve, the color, the note, the word? Wasn’t the ability to start anew, again and again, the very definition of human endeavor?”
Without a doubt, this book is brilliant. Sometimes, brilliance can be intimidating, can make dreams fade and wither beneath its glow. Because what’s the point of trying to create if you know your creation will never shine that brightly? No one wants to hang their first finger-painting next to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, right? But sometimes, brilliance inspires, lends resolve, convinces shaky feet to take first steps. And that’s what Wolas did here, at least for me. This is a book I will cherish and reread, one I foresee being tattered when I give it to my niece as she heads off to college. It’s a book that matters.
I would like to thank Flatiron Books for sending me this unsolicited ARC. Though I’m grateful, the opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.