book review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

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WE WENT TO THE WOODS by Caite Dolan-Leach
★★★★☆
Random House, July 2, 2019

 

Like most books compared to The Secret HistoryWe Went to the Woods isn’t as good, so let’s just get that out of the way. Which I’m not saying to be spiteful, I just genuinely don’t want to see this book flop because of unrealistically high expectations. Yes, it follows a group of friends who isolate themselves and end up propelled inevitably into tragedy, and yes, it reads like a train wreck in the best kind of way, so it’s an understandable comparison. But it’s also a deeply aggravating book, and I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it.

We Went to the Woods focuses on Mack, a grad school dropout who, fleeing some kind of messy event in her past (more on that in a second), joins a group of idealistic young people who essentially endeavor to live in a modern-day socialist commune. That’s basically the plot: many pages of gardening and rivalries and sexual tension and social activism ensue.

My biggest issue with this book was the way Mack’s backstory was handled: what should have been presented to the reader on page one was nonsensically withheld for a lame kind of ‘gotcha!’ moment halfway through the book that added nothing to the narrative or the suspense. When Mack finally tells her story, it feels like a stranger reciting it rather than the narrator whose head we’d been inhabiting for several hundred pages – so little does the event actually impact her thoughts or actions (other than providing the incentive she needed to abandon her life and join this project).

My other main issue is pace: though I found this compelling, mostly due to Caite Dolan-Leach’s elegant and clever writing, I imagine that for a lot of readers, it’s probably going to drag. With a cover and title like this it’s easy to imagine that you’re in for some kind of thriller, but like We Went to the Woods‘ predecessor, Dead Letters, I fear that this book is going to suffer from ‘marketed as a thriller, gets bad reviews because it’s actually literary fiction’ syndrome. However, where Dead Letters (an underrated gem, in my opinion) is the kind of book where a single word isn’t out of place, We Went to the Woods languishes, unnecessarily so. I can only hope a few hundred more redundant words are chopped before its publication date.

But to be honest, the only reason I’m dwelling so much on the negatives is because I did enjoy it so much – it’s the kind of book that fully earned my investment and therefore frustrated me all the more in the areas where it fell short. That said, there’s so much to recommend it. This book is a contemporary zeitgeist, taking a premise that seems to belong in the 60s and modernizing it with urgency. In a scene where the characters learn the results of the 2016 election, their reactions are almost painfully recognizable, and the book’s main themes and social commentary dovetail again and again, always asking the same question: how important is activism in late-stage capitalism; is it better to try something that turns out to be futile or not try anything at all? Though the characters do quite a bit of moralizing, Dolan-Leach doesn’t, as she recognizes the complexity of the book’s central conceit.

And on top of all that, I found it incredibly entertaining. Slow pace aside, I was so drawn into this story and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who needs their protagonists to be likable, but if you enjoy character studies about twisted, flawed individuals, this is a pretty good one.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pre-order a copy of We Went to the Woods here on Book Depository.

27 thoughts on “book review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

  1. LISTEN i love your “4 star review that reads like a 2 star review” brand! This book actually sounds amazing, especially the whole premise of them trying to live in a socialist commune, that sounds like something that I would love.

    This also got me thinking about how marketing is so important and how it can make or break a book because this definitely has thriller vibes, which can do such a diservice to a book.

    Anyways, loved this review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoy it 😂It was a really great book but also REALLY frustrating at times so I had to be sure I communicated my thoughts on both ends of the spectrum! I think it’s for the book’s own good, really – if I were just like ‘this is amazing, the next best thing since The Secret History’ I think people would go into it with really unrealistic expectations and that’s not going to help anyone.

      And yes, absolutely! I keep meaning to write a post about books that are marketed as thrillers that don’t do well because they’re actually literary fiction – I feel like there are SO MANY of them.

      Like

  2. Great review! I do like a good character study, and “60s premise modernized with urgency” sounds highly appealing, but I think I’ll stick with Dead Letters as my first Dolan-Leach. Enjoyable but aggravating seems like it might work better if I’m already on board with the author. But I’ll make sure to keep this one on my radar, as it does look very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is absolutely the course of action I would recommend! I think Dead Letters is a much stronger book, but they’re both interesting and unique, and her writing style is just so smart, I enjoy it immensely.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. See, this sounds RIGHT up my street – thanks for this review, if I ever get to it I’ll know what to expect. Anything with a group of University students doing something subversive always gets the Secret History comparison, which as you say, does no one any favours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I ever published a book and my publicity team opted for the TSH comparison I’d probably be devastated (though flattered, of course) – what a tall order! No book that follows a similar blueprint is ever going to be as good, but this book has a ton of merits on its own, so I hope people can look past the comparison and enjoy it!

      Like

  4. I’m going to look for this! I find I’m generally unsympathetic to characters in communes (because I would hate it myself) and I do hate when books withheld information for no particular reason, but you’ve still made it sound very good!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was just looking at the comments on this post and realized this was the only one I failed to reply to – I baffle myself at times. So, we’re several weeks late but thank you! To be honest I’m right there with you about being unsympathetic to characters joining communes – I find myself rolling my eyes and going ‘WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS’ about every ten pages, but nonetheless I still devoured this!

      Liked by 1 person

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