Hello everyone, and welcome back!
So…The Book of Dust came in this past week, and as excited as I am to get to that after just re-reading His Dark Materials, I’m also nervous? I feel like it’s hard for any kind of media to capture the same magic years later, and as much as I think I’ll enjoy going back to Lyra’s world, I’m a bit scared of the idea of being disappointed. (It’s also the sort of book I think it might be difficult to review.)
Instead, I went back to the backlist to kick off the week and finally tucked into one of the Anna-Marie McLemore books I had sitting around. I’m not sure why it took this long; magical realism + diverse books (both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality) sounds really like what I’m looking to read? Probably why I picked up two of her books before ever getting into them. But now I do finally have some feelings about this book, so let’s get into it!
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Since I’m commenting on covers lately: this is a medium cover. It expresses what’s going on in the book and gets at its magical realism genre, but it’s not my favourite.
When the Moon Was Ours is a magical realism romance about two best friends: Miel, a girl who fell out of the water tower one day and grows roses from her wrist; and Sam, the boy who hangs moons everywhere so she and others can sleep soundly at night. Miel keeps the traumatic secrets of her lost family; Sam struggles with his gender identity.
This book is not for everyone, I think, but the people it is for will probably love it. It’s short on dialogue and direct action/plot, not unlike the last book I reviewed, but in this case, it feels more deliberate; the writing style is gorgeously descriptive, painting magical, shimmering imagery of the world the characters inhabit. Everything these characters see is lushly described. If you’re not into writing that feels poetic, this book is likely a heavy no for you. (Also maybe if you’re not that visual. This is very much about visual stimuli.)
Because there’s not a lot of dialogue or external action, the book is a lot about internal struggles: Miel, grappling with the trauma of her past; Sam, trying to come to grips with what he wants; for others, there are secrets they’re keeping. The book does have antagonists, the Bonner girls, four sisters notorious for charming boys with their beauty and striking red hair; however, what they do mostly forces the protagonists, especially Miel, to face themselves. To enjoy this book, you have to be invested in the internal conflicts of the characters. I think those conflicts are fairly compelling, and the diversity of the two leads (both in that they’re Latina and Italian-Pakistani and that Sam is trans) adds a lot of depth to their struggles to find their places in a small community, particularly given the author’s light-handed but meaningful portrayals of the prejudice they face.
The last potential hurdle for readers is the genre. Magical realism is pretty grounded, but often incorporates aspects of magic without any explanation or other alterations of the world surrounding it. If anyone goes into this book really wanting to know why Miel grows roses from her wrist or how magical aspects of the book work, they’ll be disappointed. The magic is something you have to accept working as kind of a metaphor.
All of that said: I really enjoyed this book, personally. I wouldn’t have minded more dialogue to get more of a sense of the characters and their differences and interactions (both Miel and Sam were kind, gentle, forgiving, mostly just with different struggles), and given the significance of the Bonner girls and the parental figures in this novel, I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with each of those characters. (This was a short novel, so I don’t think there wasn’t time.)
Still, I really enjoyed the poetic descriptions of Sam hanging moons, the fields of pumpkins, Aracely curing lovesickness, and so on. Sam and Miel had a very sweet romance, and I rooted for them as characters to overcome their internal conflicts and find peace within themselves. It was refreshing to see a romance between two non-white leads and with a trans boy as one of those leads, so this book is definitely a novel (pardon the pun) and beautiful thing. …I still think we maybe needed more time with the Bonner girls to feel like the consequences of their actions were meaningful, but they are somewhere between being characters and a plot device, so.
Overall, I felt like this book was a brief but lovely experience, and if you like descriptive, poetic writing, internal conflict, romance, and magical realism, you’d probably dig it. If you are not really about those things, then this is just not the book for you. It was a book for me: not perfect, but definitely gorgeous and heartwarming in ways I rarely come across. From the author’s dedication to her note about the ways in which this book reflects her life, it’s obvious this book has a lot of heart in it, and it shows.
Do you like magical realism as a genre? Do you have any magical realism favourites? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!