Book Review: Hemlock Grove, by Brian McGreevy

My honest reaction upon finishing Brian McGreevy’s debut novel Hemlock Grove:

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And I was so, so disappointed, because I had wanted to read it since it first came out, even moreso after I heard it was being adapted into a series on Netflix. I love werewolves, I love post-industrial town settings, and I love creepy paranormal murders, all things that I was promised in this updated take on the Gothic novel.

Instead, I got lackluster characterizations, a slow and frequently-lost plot, bizarre allusions to concepts that were never resolved, tortured writing, and some final twists that were eyeroll-inducing.

I fear that any attempt to summarize will actually make the story sound better than it was, but here goes: In the Pennsylvania factory town of Hemlock Grove, where the shadow of the Godfrey family’s biotechnology plant and their mysterious projects looms large, teenage girls are getting murdered by something inhuman. Peter, a Romani teenager, and Roman, the scion of the town’s wealthiest family, want to find out who, and what, it is. But both have dark secrets of their own–Peter is a werewolf and Roman an upir. Their families hide, with varying degrees of success, their own paranormal skeletons in the closet: Roman’s mother is an upir of even greater strength, his sister Shelley is a 7-foot tall mute due to some shady scientific experimentation done on her in her youth, and his cousin Letha, who believes she was impregnated by an angel. 

Sounds awesome, right?

McGreevy hamstrings the great ideas of the story in a few different ways, not least of which is the writing. Characters speak in garbled idioms or vague hints. It’s sometimes unclear who is speaking to who, and when. In trying to spool out the various mysteries, both action and plot become mired by McGreevy’s insistence on not spelling anything out directly or clearly. (For example: at one point near the book’s end, a fairly central character dies. And I had NO IDEA until I read someone’s else review online. THAT is how vague and artsy some of this writing is.)

The writing also undermines the characters, even the likable ones, who frequently make confusing, irrational choices. The aimlessness and lack of planning –even when their lives and the lives of their loved ones were at risk–on the part of Roman and Peter drove me bonkers. Killer on the loose and you’re being blamed for the murders? Definitely give up on trying to catch him and just hang out instead. And our “evil” characters, often the saving grace for me in similar novels, were just as bland and their plans just as pointless as our protagonists. Roman’s mother, who had real potential, had her entire character up until that point assassinated in the last few pages. I don’t even really understand a lot of what went on with her.

Finally, if you want to find out what happens to Shelley, what happens to Letha’s child, what happens to Peter, what Project Ouroboros is, and why Roman’s mother does ANYTHING that she does, write your own conclusions, because they are nowhere to be found in the actual novel.

As for high points, I thought Peter’s transformation into a werewolf was described in an horrifyingly innovative manner, much more visceral than your typical CGI-esque change. I liked Shelley’s inner depths, revealed in her communications to her uncle. Again, I think that the underlying ideas in this book were spectacular. They were just handed poorly, sacrificed for someone’s idea of post-modern Gothic style. (You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hemlock Grove was McGreevy’s MFA thesis.)

All in all, this was an inauspicious start to my participation in the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by the Roof Beam Reader.

Bookwanderer Rating: Two out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Senses will lie as dreams wake. You are not on solid ground. Don’t look down.”
Other reviews: Geek Pittsburgh, Pop Insomniacs, Bookgasm

2 Responses to “Book Review: Hemlock Grove, by Brian McGreevy”

  1. 1 Lauren Henderson February 2, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    I watched this series on Netflix but I actually had no clue it was a book. I got excited for a minute but after reading your review, I think I’ll probably skip it. Do you know if there will be a sequel?

    • 2 tarynwanderer February 18, 2014 at 5:30 pm

      Hi Lauren!

      It sounds like you enjoyed the show, so perhaps you would like the book too! I’m a really harsh judge of werewolf novels (which is a very specific and weird thing to be critical of, haha).

      I’ve read comments by the author stating that he doesn’t intend to write a sequel–which seems odd to me! I haven’t watched the show, but the book, at least, ends with several loose threads that seem to suggest a follow-up novel or two.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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