I first encountered Emma Donoghue’s writing two years ago after a friend recommended I pick up her uncomfortable and riveting novel, Room. I was immediately impressed by this author’s ability to tackle such a sensitive (and disturbing) topic with finesse. When I learned of her newest release, The Wonder, via Book of the Month Club, it was easy to persuade myself to select that novel.
Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, the novel opens with its main character — no, not the title subject — nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a widow native to England and trained in the science of nursing by the renowned Florence Nightingale. Lib has been sent to Ireland for a two-week job, parameters largely unbeknownst to her. Upon arrival, she discovers she is to be a “warden” of sorts for young Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old girl who hasn’t partaken of food or drink (other than water) in four months. Locals — and travelers from abroad — believe the young maiden is a miracle, living according to God’s will. After her first day in the poverty-stricken country, Lib is determined to prove the child is a fraud and wash her hands of the scandal before her two weeks are up, if possible.
Initially, Lib harbors feelings of great resentment — for her job assignment, for Anna’s presumed deceptiveness, for the gloomy conditions of Ireland, and for the zealous Catholics she can’t seem to escape. A nonbeliever, Lib finds the impoverished people of Ireland embarrassingly loony for their dependency upon church teachings and traditional Irish folklore. As the days pass, though, she realizes there is more to these people than meets her hawk-like eye. While her watch winds to a close, Lib becomes ensnared in a frenzied race against time that will permanently alter the course of her life.
The Good: The book is told by an outside narrator; but the narrative most closely follows Lib’s experiences and observations, providing readers with more ample insight into the perspective of the oft-irritating main character. Additionally, though the book is deeply rooted in religious themes, the novel never feels preachy or assuming. As a Catholic, I was fascinated to read about a time period in which members of the Church relied so heavily (and often literally) upon the teachings of scripture and priests. I also thoroughly enjoyed the mysterious feel of this story. During the last third of the book, I jumped from one theory to another, trying to determine how Anna’s story would end. I was not disappointed in the outcome of this novel. (Exception: See the last item on my Not-So-Good list.) Finally, The Wonder is a success due to Donoghue’s contrasting characters and their ideals: the relationships between English and Irish, Catholics and non-believers, educated and uneducated, and so forth. Her novel’s greatest strength lies in the conflicts that she’s so craftily woven together.
The Not-So-Good: This book is a very, very slow burn. One might even say it smolders. . . . While I was intrigued by the premise of the story, I had a hard time truly getting into the book until after the first 3 chapters were concluded. This may be, in part, because Lib is such a remarkably stubborn and one-dimensional character for so long. Her stubbornness is key to the story, of course; but the first two-thirds of the book was infuriatingly tedious. Also, on an admittedly nitpicky point, I was irritated by the volume of italicized phrases throughout the novel. Donoghue used italics frequently to emphasize particular ideas or revelations Lib had throughout the book, and these often just ended up feeling cheesy to me. Again: extremely nitpicky, but the excessive italics grated at me like sandpaper. One final “meh” moment: the epilogue of the book. Many laud the (very) end as the one redeeming quality of the narrative; however, I felt the epilogue was too convenient and not altogether necessary. I’m interested to hear how others feel . . .
The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Not the most thrilling or engaging read, but an intriguing piece of historical fiction with a worthy conclusion and mysterious vibe.