book review: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh



THE WATER CURE by Sophie Mackintosh
Doubleday Books, January 8, 2019


The Water Cure was nothing like I expected, but I ended up enjoying it all the more for that. This is a vaguely unsettling, eerie tale of three sisters who were raised by their parents on a remote island to fear all men other than their father. They believe the outside world is dangerous and toxic, and they regularly perform painful rituals and ‘therapies’ to cleanse themselves. But then their father vanishes without a trace and three strange men wash up on their shore, and the novel takes place over the span of the week that follows.

The biggest surprise for me was that I was expecting a Handmaid’s Tale-esque feminist dystopia, but in reality I wouldn’t actually describe this book as a dystopia at all. I think a certain amount of ambiguity in this regard is intentional, especially at first, and I think there is going to be some healthy debate about how you can read this book, as a lot of questions deliberately go unanswered. But if the appeal of dystopias to you is the worldbuilding and big picture stuff, The Water Cure will undoubtedly disappoint. To me this felt more like an allegorical contemporary (or if not contemporary, at least set in the very near-future) whose strength lies more in its exploration of complex interpersonal dynamics than in its merit as a dystopic text. I’d compare it to King Lear or The Beguiled (and I would not be surprised if Sofia Coppola directed an eventual film adaptation) over The Handmaid’s Tale or The Power.

But for me, its inability to fit neatly into the ‘feminist dystopia’ genre is only an asset. Sophie Mackintosh has created something strong and uniquely unsettling. Her prose is remarkably lyrical, and the insular setting she crafts is at once immersive and claustrophobic. This is a novel whose themes exist slightly below the surface, and though it has a lot to say about gender roles and social dynamics and what it means to exist in modern society as a woman, none of this leaps off the page at a quick glance. There’s an incredible amount of depth and subtlety here, especially for such a short novel.

The biggest problem – really, the only problem – I had with this novel was that I was occasionally unconvinced by the fact that these sisters had lived their entire lives so removed from society. Not only were their vocabularies littered with colloquial phrases in a way that seemed at odds from how their parents spoke, at times they drew generalizations about human nature in a way that didn’t ring true for someone with such a limited world view. But this is something I found myself forgiving more and more as the novel went on, as it ultimately had the air of a fable, and I didn’t find myself too hung up on the details.

Basically, don’t expect another Handmaid’s Tale, but don’t think it isn’t worth your time because of that. I actually liked The Water Cure better.

Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Sophie Mackintosh for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


32 thoughts on “book review: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

    • HONESTLY! And my petty resentment toward The Handmaid’s Tale grows with every inaccurate comparison. In 50 years are we still going to be citing it as the best feminist book ever??? When will its reign end???

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ugh, same. When comparisons stop feeling genuine and become obvious marketing ploys, it’s time to let ‘em go 👋🏼 I also love that I can lowkey drag The Handmaid’s Tale with you without fear of judgement 😂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Honestly disliking The Handmaid’s Tale in 2012 and seeing its pop culture resurgence in 2017 was its own kind of dystopian nightmare. My annoyance with it only grows every time it’s treated like the only feminist novel ever written, so I am ALWAYS here to drag this book without judgement. When will we be free?!

        Liked by 1 person

      • 😂 I read it last year in the midst of its renaissance, and felt like a failed bookworm and feminist for not loving it, so our mutual disappointment pleases me, haha. It’s the laziness of the way it’s so consistently lauded that bothers me; like, “the world knows about one ‘great’ feminist text, there’s no need for another”. Apparently the feminist conversation hasn’t advanced at all in the last 30 years?!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think you rated it higher than I did but you’re still one of the only other feminist readers I know who isn’t obsessed with it so 🙌 YES that’s exactly what irritates me so much. I mean, if we can look at the works of Hemingway and be like ‘this is kind of sexist as hell but it’s still valuable’ why can’t we examine The Handmaid’s Tale the same way??? It is so frustrating to me that it’s seen as some kind of feminist crime to critique this book. Like maybe Atwood’s depiction (aka removal) of race hasn’t aged particularly well and we should be shining this light on some more contemporary feminist works??? 🤷🏻‍♀️

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Love this!
    This whole calling this book scifi really threw me for a loop earlier this month (as you well know) so I am glad you saw the ambiguity in a similar way. And yes, I agree it is a stronger book for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see why some people who read it as a sci-fi dystopia were dissatisfied with it, but that reading admittedly baffles me. I kept waiting for some kind of twist which would add in the dystopia element, but it just didn’t come. Definitely a cult novel set in the very near-future. I’m glad we read this the same way or I’d be having a major ‘am I taking crazy pills?’ moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this informative review! I’m really looking forward to reading The Water Cure, and it was good to hear that it’s less of a dystopian novel than I had previously thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This book is one of the most famous ones from the Man Booker longlist and one of the books that I’m really interested to read. The premise sounds okay, but I hope the writing makes the book better. Lovely review! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] 6. The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh Quick summary: Three sisters are raised on the outskirts of society by an eccentric father who has raised them to fear all other men. Quick review: Quietly powerful and thematically subtle, this not-quite-dystopia is let down by its comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s a strong and unique work that stands on its own just fine. Full review HERE ★★★★☆ […]


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