Normally, narratives about cults and communes are right up my street. Coupled with the isolated woodlands of Minnesota, I was fairly confident that this was going to be a winner for me. How very wrong I was.
Linda, aka Mattie aka Madeline, now 37, remembers a pivotal summer when she was 14. The summer the Gardners moved into the neighbouring cabin on the lake. Apparently the perfect city family, glamorous Patra and toddler Paul are awaiting the arrival of husband/father Leo when Linda initially befriends them. Part babysitter, part governess, Linda teaches the upfront, oddly serious three year old about the woods, survival and nature, as well as keeping him out from under his parents’ feet. Leo is a controlling and manipulative Astronomer, dubbed a genius by his doting, fawning wife. A wife that is 11 years his junior and a former student.
It is hinted at, then referred to as the book goes on that there is something wrong with Paul, something that, in the future, Linda will be quizzed about. Her actions, responses and thoughts will be analysed and assessed in minute detail. These later events break into the summer narrative periodically, recounted by a much older Linda.
During her narrative, Linda bounces from topic to topic, from decade to decade. There’s a teacher arrested on pedophilia charges; her 20s spent living with a Canadian girl, a mechanic boyfriend; the summer she babysat for the Gardners; lots of meandering through the beautiful but somehow uninteresting forests; writing to the pervert teacher; a sudden death. I did find it quite hard to keep track of what age Linda was supposed to be in which scenes, perhaps because the storytelling was kind of sloppy, perhaps because I wasn’t super bothered.
Even the woods were stripped of their magic by the detached Linda and her unvaried treks through familiar trails. The lakeside woods were simply an unremarkable reality, her known landscape. No more unusual or noteworthy than buildings or roads. The same cycles went round and round, bringing their own tasks, challenges and temperatures.
I found this book dull and pretentious- there was no atmosphere, no suspense. I don’t know what the wolf business was about. The subplot with the teacher and Lily was entirely divorced from the Gardner’s plot.. The structure was abrasive, the characters forgettable, dull and lacking in any kind of agency. Linda was incredibly irritating, her inner monologue unbearable. She seemed periodically obsessed with Patra, with classmate Lily, with Wolves...all intense but transient. She had no motivation, no interests, no convictions, no opinions, no identity. She seemed thoroughly damaged, fantasizing about doing something (anything) shocking or inappropriate, then invariably standing there like a silent lemon wrestling with her thoughts. She’s socially awkward, emotionally distant from her family. She seems to have no friends, and she delights in pranks and stunts, cruel or inexplicable letters. She was obviously very lonely and isolated, left behind with her presumed parents after the breakdown and drifting off of their commune community. I just couldn't care about her at all. An unlikable character is not always a deal breaker, but I didn’t find the prose particularly beguiling and I was glad to finally have done with this tedious story.