Book review: Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

There is a boy outside her daughter’s window.

Wendy feels it, like a trickle of starlight whispering in through a gap, a change in the very pressure and composition of the air. She knows, as sure as her own blood and bones, and the knowledge sends her running. Her hairbrush clatters to the floor in her wake; her bare feet fly over carpeted runners and slap wooden floorboards, past her husband’s room and to her daughter’s door.

It is not just any boy, it’s the boy. Peter.

 

 A.C. Wise’s debut novel instantly pulled me in with these evocative first lines. “The horror-tinged feminist Peter Pan retelling I never knew I needed,” says one of the blurbs on the back of this book (by writer Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam), and that is an apt description indeed. This is a fabulously dark and gorgeous reimagining of the Peter Pan story, one that goes to surprising places. And though Neverland, in Wise’s telling, is indeed magical, Wendy’s life as an adult in the real world of post-World War I London is just as compelling as starry night flights and battles with monsters—if not more so.


Wendy, Darling picks up where J.M. Barrie’s novel ended: with Peter entering the room of Wendy’s daughter, Jane, and taking her to Neverland in Wendy’s stead. But Wise’s novel also goes back into the past, reimagining the Darling siblings’ stay in Neverland, and detailing the fallout of that stay in Wendy’s life when she comes back to London. Her parents do not believe her story of Neverland, and succeed in convincing her brothers to not believe, as well. As the siblings grow up, only Wendy remembers and believes, and this has devastating results in the years to come, when her refusal to deny Neverland results in her commitment to an abusive mental asylum.


Wendy, Darling takes on a number of complex and weighty issues, both in and out of Neverland. The book sensitively examines the extremely limited options available to a single woman in Wendy’s world, in England during this era. Wendy’s brother thinks he is caring for her (or claims that he is) when he commits her to the asylum, but the novel shows his condescension and self-serving motivations, particularly when he takes her out of the asylum only so that he can press her into an arranged marriage (Wendy forgives him far more easily than I). And though the sexism and misogyny of the era are foregrounded, the book also examines other marginalizations and oppressions. It also shows different kinds of love. Wendy finds an unexpected love with the husband who is arranged for her, and who has also been trapped by the conventional expectations of their world. She finds love with Mary, an indigenous woman of Canada who came to England as a child and who was abandoned at the mental asylum by her stepfather. She finds love with and for her daughter, Jane, and it is this love that propels the second major storyline of the novel, which impels Wendy to leap from a window and fly again, to risk everything to save her daughter and to face her past and the truth of Peter and Neverland.


Peter is the boy who doesn’t grow up, who refuses to grow up, and this novel addresses the darkness of that. He’s someone who refuses to change, and who won’t let others change; who took Wendy with him so he could have a mother-figure who could always care for him, and who kidnaps Jane to be a second mother. As Wendy muses at one point: What can a mother be to a boy determined to remain perpetually young? Only a shadow, forever chained to him and trailing in his wake, bearing all his hurts so he doesn’t have to.


The scenes which take place in London, in the mundane world, are rich and complex and beautifully written. The scenes in Neverland are tinged with a wonderful, creeping horror. When Jane wakes in Neverland, she finds that her name has been taken away. Peter addresses her as “Wendy,” and she doesn’t know another name to respond to. Peter holds court over the Lost Boys, tyrant of the island; he can reshape the reality of Neverland to his whims. This is compelling dark magic and slowly escalating horror. The tension pulses, and worlds collide when Wendy appears, a fierce and determined woman, a figure who is mother, savior, comforter, and avenging angel all at once.


Wendy grows up, and Peter never did, and this is one of the central themes of the book. Wendy survives her time in an asylum; she survives and overcomes abuse greater than anything Peter ever gave her. She built a real life for herself, on real foundations. There is mourning for the fairyland of her childhood, but Wendy, Darling offers a compelling and persuasive argument that most portal fantasy novels don’t (or at least are not successful in arguing): that the real world is indeed worth it. That growing up is worth it. Wendy’s growth and courage are underpinned by love, and the discoveries and depictions of love (in its many different forms) are beautifully done. Jane’s viewpoint chapters, and the depiction of her relationship with her mother from her viewpoint, are also beautifully done. This is a book that’s aching and heart-wrenching at times, complicated, triumphant, and bittersweet. It’s tender at its heart. And it’s magical.  

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