Predictably, this book is in part based on the fairy tale the Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen (this is closely related to the tale the Six Swans as told by the Brothers Grimm). But what makes this book unique is that it does more than just tell an old tale over again with a few new quirks.
Interwoven with Eliza’s tale as she follows the story outlined by the fairy tale is another story: that of Elias, a boy in 1980’s New York. Now, I’m not a huge fan of modernized fairy tales. But Elias’s story doesn’t pretend to be a fairy tale. The fairy tale is Eliza’s story, dark and trying though it is. Elias’s story is about a boy who is trying to make his way after being thrown out by his well-to-do family for admitting to a sexuality that his father refused to accept.
The relation between Eliza and Elias’s stories is a tenuous one. Eliza and Elias are connected through the faint bond of their dreams, as each gains some strength from the other through the most trying times of their stories.
Of the three people I know who have read the book, one has only enjoyed Eliza’s story, claiming that Elias’s was shallow and unrealistic; one only enjoyed Elias’s story, claiming that Eliza’s was stereotypical and unoriginal; one claimed to have enjoyed both, but said it would have been better had they been two separate stories. I, personally, enjoyed both tremendously, and thought that the book was all the more brilliant for the way it tied two seemingly unrelated stories together and told them in parallel. Both have positive endings, but in the time leading up to the ending, there is a time when one is more optimistic than the other, and a time when both appear utterly hopeless. The end is a tear-jerker as well, because while both endings are positive and uplifting in their own ways, one is more of a happily ever after than the other.
While Eliza’s story was not, to my mind, lacking in originality, it also wasn’t so greatly different from the tale that Andersen told. There are characters, details and twists that Kerr adds, making the story her own, but if you aren’t a person who enjoyed Andersen’s version of the Wild Swans, I think that maybe you wouldn’t find this version much better. As a person who greatly loves Andersen’s version, I quite enjoyed Eliza’s story; but at the same time, I have very little to say of it. The prose was nice, and engaging, but not spectacular; the additions brought to the story through Kerr’s mind were good ones, that fleshed out aspects of the story and its characters that Andersen left very open to interpretation. In particular, she offered the villain a motive. And while this motive is the most simple and basic of motives, its simple acknowledgment makes the character a man, rather than simply antagonist to Eliza’s plight. She also put the story into a historical context, and changed details so as to make it more realistic. Never deviating from Andersen’s established course of events, Kerr nevertheless manages to make this story fuller and truer.
But to me, the highlight of the book was the developing relationship between Elias and Sean, the man with whom he finds a home. The attraction is instantaneous and not in the least remarkable. But what makes this would-be unremarkable relationship wonderful as it unfolds is the emotion that underlies it all. The fact that Sean has many partners is predictable, and from there Elias’s hopeless love and fidelity to a partner he knows not to expect exclusion form is nothing if not stereotypical. Elias’s staunch refusal to sleep with a man other than Sean despite the world he is being introduced to is perhaps an unexciting twist to some, but it endeared him to me.
Once again, I’m digressing to rant (briefly), but one thing that very much annoys me about modern literature (or maybe it’s just the stuff I get my hands on, I don’t claim to read a ridiculous amount) is the sheer volume of casual sex. It’s a culture, and not reprehensible by any means, but nor is the decision to only sleep with a person you feel a true connection to—and this isn’t necessarily reflected in literature, where you can expect that if there are two leads of opposite sex of whom neither is gay (or of the same sex, both of whom are gay) then we will see them in bed before the end of the book. Sometimes they fall in love; other times it’s just lust, and romances do little to encourage differentiation between lust and love, which only adds fuel to the fire—and not necessarily in a good way. And often, a hero (or more often, heroine) who won’t have sex with someone, he/she is portrayed as either prudish or utterly innocent.
So Elias was a nice reprieve from those stereotypes, and far more to my taste. Because while he doesn’t sleep around, nor does he recoil from the general promiscuity of the people immersed in the culture that he begins to learn about through Sean, and his other friends. His reluctance extends no further than offering his body to strangers, and he never seems to judge any of the people around him. And even then, Elias is willing to offer up his body if it is for a purpose: we first meet him as he is setting out to sell his body to men, after all. It’s only after he recognizes his feelings for Sean that he really develops this reluctance to sleep with anyone else.
There are philosophies to be contemplated as well, religious and otherwise. Eliza’s story, given the time and place (17th century England) and the story itself, is given to discussion of Christianity as distinct from witchcraft and ghosts. But surprisingly, the religious angle is more eagerly picked up by Elias, and later Sean as well. It’s not the sort of thing that one has to be Christian in order to appreciate at all, and it provides insight into both characters and their mindsets. Kerr has a knack for showing us the characters as people, not just pawns moving about to depict a story, and so the reader can easily slip into the shoes of Eliza, Elias, Jonathan, Sean, and even William (Eliza’s antagonist), and empathize with their sorrows, hopes and dreams.
If I were to name one complaint with this book, it is that it goes too quickly. There simply isn’t enough space in one book to completely detail both stories as they might otherwise be, so at times the stories move devastatingly quickly. But ultimately, this is for the best, because I find that I prefer these stories told entwined far more than I ever would have if they were torn apart, each without the encouragement and perspective provided by the other.
My rating for this book is 9/10.