Rarely have I read a novel that self-destructed as spectacularly in its conclusion as Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. In my experience, at least, if a book is going to go sour, it happens quickly and early on. You probably know the feeling: you crack open a book you’re excited about, or that’s been recommended to you by someone you trust, and start to read, and it dawns on you almost immediately that you are going to hate this book, but you gamely struggle on, hoping against hope that it will get better. And when it doesn’t, you’re disappointed, but not necessarily surprised.
Year of Wonders is different, in large part because it starts out so strongly–making that fact that it ends so poorly feel almost like a betrayal.
Year of Wonders is, on the one hand, an impeccably-researched historical fiction novel about a small English town that, when faced with an outbreak of the bubonic plague, chooses to isolate itself to prevent the disease from spreading. Inspired by the true story of Esam, this novel follows the journey of one woman in particular: Anna, handmaid to the wife of the village’s rector, who has lost both her husband and her children. Rather than becoming broken due to the circumstances, Anna is built up. She steps into the vaccuum left by many of the town’s traditional leaders and becomes a powerful force in her own right. Anna learns to read and write, and–along with her employer and friend, Elinor–learns about herbal remedies that may be the key to stopping the devastating sweep of the plague.
On the other hand, it is a study in an author letting her desire to protect the main character derail the plot and end an otherwise well-done book on an improbable note. As many other reviews have mentioned, the last 50 or so pages of the novel seem to have come from a different book. Where the rest of Year of Wonders was paced slowly, deliberately, events and twists suddenly seem to crop up on every page, each more unbelievable than the last. Characters whose personalities and motivations made sense throughout begin to act erratically, destroying a lot of the goodwill that I had accumulated for them. (I still don’t really understand what was going on with the rector…was he a noble man fueled by faith and destroyed by grief, or was he a cruel zealot adhering blindly to principles that hurt others?)
Year of Wonders is an average novel that could have been great, had it only ended a bit earlier. I would have easily given it three or four stars if Anna had simply gone on living a simple, unextraordinary life, in which she continued to accumulate knowledge and the respect of the town, taking the place of her herbalist friends. Sometimes less is more.
I read Year of Wonders for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.
Bookwanderer Rating: Two out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “It is a great thing to be young and to live without pain. And yet it is a blessing few of us count until we lose it.”
Other Reviews: SF Site Reviews, Book Hooked Blog, NY Times, Nitty Gritty Dirt Man