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

42179785

 

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.

top 5 wednesday: Authors You Want to Read More From

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

April 26th: Authors You Want to Read More From: Talk about some authors that you’ve only read one or a few books from, and you NEED to read more!

For this week’s topic I decided to focus on authors who’ve only written one or two books, as opposed to prolific authors like Shakespeare who I should get around to reading more of one of these days. Instead, all of the authors I’ve chosen I hope will publish more in the future!  Also, all women, because why not.

rehost2f20162f92f132f299a903d-6b20-45a5-a38d-37370b6d0286

Hanya Yanagihara: Of her two novels, The People in the Trees and A Little Life, I’ve only read the latter, but it had such a profound effect on me that I won’t even hesitate to call her one of my favorite authors. I’ve heard mixed reviews of The People in the Trees but I do intend to get around to it one of these days. Regardless, anything she publishes in the future I won’t even hesitate to pre-order.  Her prose flows with an effortless beauty, and the characters she creates are flawed and sympathetic.  A Little Life was almost painfully bleak and difficult to read, but it was also one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read.

 

994Hannah Kent: Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites was published in 2013, and her sophomore novel, The Good People, comes out in the fall in the US. I’m really looking forward to it. With Burial Rites, Kent managed to combine historical and literary fiction – two of my favorite genres – to create a story that was both atmospheric and emotionally devastating. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to read her new one.

 

celeste-ng-c-kevin-day-photographyCeleste Ng: Another one with a new novel coming out in the fall! Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, was an absolutely outstanding little book, which I found to be a masterclass in intricate storytelling. I actually have an e-galley of her new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and I can’t wait to get around to it! I think even if I hate it (which I doubt I will), I’ll still read anything Ng does in the future, because an outstanding novel like Everything I Never Told You can’t possibly be a fluke. This woman is a genius.

 

caitedolanleach.jpgCaite Dolan-Leach: Her debut, Dead Letters which I read recently, is the quintessential ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book – but I loved it. I thought Dolan-Leach’s writing was so clever, and it suited the story flawlessly. She had such a distinct style in this book, and I’m mainly curious to see if and how she’d change it up in the future.  Also, as Dead Letters was a ‘literary mystery,’ I’m curious which of those two genres she’ll pursue in the future, or if she’ll continue on with more literary-mystery hybrids.  Whatever she decides to do, I’m sure I’ll love it.

 

nightshotsmallerKatharine Beutner: And finally, a relatively unknown author… Beutner’s debut, Alcestis, a lesbian retelling of the Euripides play of the same name, was published in 2010, and she hasn’t come out with anything since. I didn’t love Alcestis unconditionally, but I thought Beutner’s prose was outstanding and she showed so much promise for a new writer. Plus, I’m really interested in retellings of Greek mythology (and especially retellings such as this one which included an LGBT twist as well as a lot of feminist aspects), so if she decides to write something similar in the future, I would love to read it!

Which authors do you guys hope will publish more in the future?  Or, alternately, which published authors do you hope to read more from?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

30900136

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

US pub date: February 21, 2017

★★★★☆

Dead Letters probably has the weirdest vibe of anything I’ve ever read. If I had to explain this book to someone, I don’t think it would be particularly helpful to summarize the plot, which makes it sound like a tense mystery instead of the literary character study that it is. I’m not really sure how I would explain it. There’s something about it that reminds me vaguely of a film noir, told with a linguistic prowess and dramatic flair that calls to mind the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. Somehow. Despite not really having anything in common with either of those things. Are you sufficiently confused? Yeah, me too. Let’s proceed.

Dead Letters commences when Ava Antipova receives a distressed email from her mother, informing her that her twin sister Zelda has died in a barn fire. Ava, who’s been living in Paris, flies home to her family’s vineyard outside Ithaca New York, suspecting that Zelda’s death may not be exactly what it seems. Soon she begins to receive a series of clues, hoping it will lead her to the truth of what happened that night in the fire.

In this era of fast-paced thrillers, let me stress: this does not belong in the mystery genre. This is a (at times slow-moving) character-driven novel. I didn’t like it any less for this fact, but I’m glad I’d heard that it wasn’t exactly a thriller before picking it up. Sometimes it’s difficult to adjust your expectations partway through a book.

Though you’ll have a hard time loving these characters, each makes a hell of an impression. Each member of the Antipova family is a volatile, selfish alcoholic. This is a book about horrible people being horrible to one another, and if you can’t bear to read about that, you won’t enjoy this book. But if you’re fascinated by dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics, as I am, there’s a good chance you’ll find this rewarding.

Our narrator, Ava, is one of the most well-crafted and three-dimensional characters I’ve read in anything recently, which is especially a feat considering the first-person narration (which I find at times complicates the reader’s ability to give the narrator an objective assessment?) But I thought that Ava was frustratingly, unnervingly real, for all her faults and virtues. Though at the beginning I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to see any of myself in her, there were certain details, like her fear of intimacy, that I found I related to so intensely it was a bit unnerving – the kind of thing where you’re reading and suddenly your breath catches and you feel deeply unsettled like you’re seeing yourself on the page. That’s just how present this story felt.

Caite Dolan-Leach’s writing is superb. Though it’s wordy to the point of pretension, you can always tell, with a book like this, which authors are anxiously flipping through thesauruses and which authors have had these words in their arsenal all along, and it’s pretty clear that Dolan-Leach belongs in the latter category. The (at times annoyingly overwrought) prose suits the story and the characters so seamlessly that it’s hard to imagine it being written any differently.

As for the ending – I won’t spoil anything, but I loved it. It was exactly the emotional payoff I was looking for after this long-winded adventure.

Though it takes a while to get going and relies a bit too heavily on elaborately baseless guesswork from the characters in order to connect certain plot points, Dead Letters was a clever and addicting read, and I thoroughly enjoyed this ride.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Random House, and Caite Dolan-Leach.

+ link to review on goodreads