Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Like all good book purchases, I bought this for its cover. Just. Gorgeous. And then I left it on a shelf for about four years before finally reading it.
The essential story is of a misfit teen called Isola, who sees and feels protected by a cast of fantastical beings around her - ghosts, mermaids, fairies, furies. She calls these fierce protectors her brother-princes, named for the characters out of her beloved French fairytales. Isola has very few real-world friends, an uncomfortably uncommunicative relationship with her dad and a mentally ill mother, but soon strikes up a friendship with Edgar, whose family moves in across the street. One day walking through the neighbouring woodlands, Isola happens across a dead girl in a cage.
I should start by mentioning that the writing is absolutely the star of this show - poetic descriptions using outrageous and wholesome arrangements of language that are oh so perfect and intriguing, mismatched verbs that actually fit better than the conventional options and delightful structural choices. The book is separated into both parts and then chapters, with whole-page illustrations of the brother-princes. Mostly told in third-person prose, occasionally the main story will be interrupted by segments of play script detailing the scene, or a page of Isola's fairytale book. This feels more common in the first half of the book, but may be better spaced out than I recall. It's actually a delightful read in that sense, all these special little inserts, similar to Markus Zusak's works. I really can't say any better than the other reviewers how lovely Near's writing style is, but that's what it is. It's lovely.
The second big star from me is for the imagination. The sense of wonder elicited by Near's world, into which her characters and plot settle so comfortably, is a real achievement. Every ridiculous or nonsensical thing that happens within the scope of the book feels totally and casually real to that world, and, once I had a handle on what was going on (there is admittedly an adjustment period at the beginning, a few dozen pages of getting your bearings as things jump a little) there was nothing about the world-building that I questioned or felt jarred by. Ghosts accompanying Isola through the woods? Uh, yeah. Obviously. Unicorns? But of course. The author's vision for this world she created is, I think, beautifully and wholly communicated to the reader, on the wings of that gorgeous writing.
Another big positive of this story is the depiction of mental illness. Isola's mother struggles with depression, and in interactions between the pair we see how this impacts the daughter, which is one of the most insightful elements of the book. These interactions flicker from dark to light, truly one of the more mature aspects - Isola is aware that her mother's behaviour is not normal, but it's become normal for her, and she deals with it, and this is both dark and sad at the same time as uplifting and light, a childlike, innocent determination to see one's parent the way you WISH they were rather than what you have. Mother Wilde's madness also juxtaposes against Isola's, so that we quickly dismiss the concept of Isola as crazy because, look, there's ACTUAL mental illness right there, so Isola must be perfectly sane by comparison. It's a clever device, helping the reader to place faith in Isola's sanity early on despite her chats with fairies, and discouraging us from questioning the validity of Isola's perspective. Because of some of this cleverness, the story's twist came quite out of field for me, and I appreciated Near's manipulation.
A couple of small things stopped me from totally loving this book, and they may have been less of an issue if I had read the book in one bout, rather than sporadically through assessment period. The story's complication wasn't entirely clear to me, and the cohesion suffered as a result. The ghostly girl in the cage occasionally dropped by to be rude and angry at the window, and then seemed to sing on the lawn and keep Isola awake. This didn't strike me as cause for the brother-princes' aggression toward the girl, and when the woods started to die, I must have missed something because I found it hard to draw the same connections Isola and her brothers did, that it was the girl's fault somehow and that Isola needed protection. Despite excellent characterisation from most of the princes, I felt a bit disappointed by the lack of development of Grape and James - in the case of James, with whom Isola has almost no positive interactions with throughout the entire book, I started to wonder why he was in the story, let alone mentioned in the blurb. I wished there could have been more page time for both of Isola's real friends. They seemed like great characters, and we only saw the very edge of them.
Overall, this is a beautiful book that I am glad I read. For the writing and imagination alone, this book is absolutely worth the read for the very literary YA reader.
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