Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood
Sourcebooks Fire, 2016, 304 pages
Full disclosure: I work with Jessica Spotswood. I wasn’t coerced into reading her work; it was something that would have interested me anyway. My thoughts here are my own and have no bearing on Jessica as a person, who is lovely. Onward!
After seventeen years without her mother, Ivy is beginning really to feel the pressure of her foremothers’ legacies. For generations, the Milbourn women have left behind amazing works of art in one form or another only to die young in Jessica Spotswood’s Wild Swans. On the coast of Virginia, Ivy struggles with her grandfather’s encouragement to build her writing portfolio while finding new companionship in his favorite student (Connor) and fighting against the assumed romantic entitlement of the boy with whom she grew up (Alex). Meanwhile, her mother returns with her two half-sisters, only her sisters don’t know exactly who she is.
Wild Swans is quietly and realistically feminist, with plenty to consider in terms of fate, self-determination, and taking charge. Though Ivy is not a strictly active character, her power appears in other ways and her thoughtfulness adds to her as a person and to her narrative. Much of Ivy’s development comes through her introspection. She’s incredibly mature and self-aware, which leads directly from her upbringing and grandfather’s role in her life. Spotswood’s characterization of each person is touched with a heavy dose of realism: many characters are paradoxical in their actions and speech, all characters are nuanced, and their interactions with and influences on each other clearly have an impact as relationships do in real life.
Connor is, in some ways, slightly cliched. He occasionally falls into the poet-boy trope, with tattoos and a coolness that many of the other characters find slightly off-putting. But in many other ways, he’s refreshing and real: Spotswood carefully handles Connor as a complete foil to Alex, which helps to reinforce the feminist message of not oweing a sexual or romantic relationship to anyone, regardless of how long a couple of people have been friends.
Spotswood’s story is wrapped up in excellent prose, too. Despite having a rather quiet plot, the book moves quickly with language that isn’t overly long but still exact. Ivy, as a narrator, is able to communicate quite a bit of context without going overboard. She’s concise and uses fairly simple language, but the quality and clarity of the plot, setting, situation, and beyond are not sacrificed for it. The quiet plot, however, also ends quietly. By the end of Ivy’s story, little seems to have truly changed. A few more beats might have tied things up in a more satisfying way, but this might have cost the novel its deep sense of realism, which in some ways feels more valuable.
If you’re looking for something that’s steady and fleshy but not overwhelmingly heavy or dark (though there’s darkness in Wild Swans, to be sure), Wild Swans could be a great next pick for you. It’s a quick read that delivers on balanced emotion and subtlety, well worth the couple of days you’ll spend with it. Whether you’re in on a rainy evening or enjoying the sun’s rays on the beach, give Wild Swans a shot — you just might find something in yourself that will surprise you.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤