I never knew when I picked this book up that the identity of Fern was supposed to be a "twist" -- the review I read that piqued my interest gave it away, and that's what made me want to read the book. Ironically, I probably would not have picked it up had I not known the "twist" beforehand!
But I am glad that I did pick it up. I hadn't realized that this was written by the same person who wrote The Jane Austen Book Club
, which I found to be a bit too cutesy and not particularly enjoyable, and at first knowing that put me off a bit. However, I found this book to be much more substantial and introspective, and demonstrative of Fowler's growth as a writer in tone and themes.
This book was less about the experience of living with Fern than I expected, and more about the way her short time with the Cooke family impacted them for decades even after she disappeared. The narrator was only five when Fern disappeared from her family, so she perhaps had the most difficulty truly making sense of what had happened and why. Her social interactions remained awkward and she felt isolated throughout most of her life, always compensating for unusual formative years and the impact Fern had on them. Unable to see the "big picture," she also blamed herself for Fern's disappearance, which was reinforced by her brother's interpretation of events.
Fern, brother Lowell, Rosemary (the narrator), and her friend Harlow are incredibly vivid characters -- the rest of the characters less so, to the extent that I sometimes had trouble keeping track of them or remembering who was who. The non-linear storytelling style can also take some getting used to, and because the book is very reflective in nature, there is a lot that is conveyed in summary and memory rather than in direct action. The narrative style seemed appropriate to the storyteller and the story she was attempting to convey, and the book's powerful themes about family, the importance of formative experiences, the response to grief, the isolation of an unconventional childhood, activism and animal rights more than made up for its minor weaknesses. It's the type of book that will make you want to read more about the subject matter, which always counts as a win for me even if it places further strain on my massive TBR list. Ever-expanding intellectual curiosity is fun, if a bit overwhelming. :)