Sunday, March 31, 2019

On Trust: The Stillwater Girls

I know I've talked about this before--the difficulty of reading a new author when you're not sure if you're supposed to trust the characters or not.  The Stillwater Girls, by Minka Kent, is a perfect example of this, and I'm trying to pick it apart.

For the first half of the book, you're reading two stories in alternating chapters from two narrators. One is from Wren, who lives in a cabin in the deep woods with her sister Sage, and whose mother left weeks ago to take their youngest sister Evie to a hospital. Wren has never been off their homestead, and if Mother doesn't come back, they might starve.

The other story is about Nicolette, who lives in a lonely part of upstate New York with her photographer husband, whom she loves deeply but suspects might be having an affair. They have been unable to have children (and I'd include some content warning for infertility struggles) and this has put pressure on the marriage. The two stories appear to have nothing to do with each other for a very long time.

Now, my objective opinion is that it took too long to bring the two stories together. Wren's story was compelling in its own right, but Nicolette's didn't grab me, and I was mostly waiting for her to have something to do with Wren. This is partly a pet peeve of mine; I have zero interest in whether anyone's husband is cheating on them.  If he's murdering people or conspiring against her, I'm on board, but if he's just sleeping around, even if he's working really hard to hide it, I'm sorry, that is nowhere near thrilling to be even  source of tension in a thriller.

So I was pretty dismissive of Nicolette. She seems very normal, maybe a little shallow and spoiled. And I've realized that I've been trying to figure out whether this is a quality of her character or a judgement I'm making. Does she seem shallow because I am quick to judge people as shallow, or because the author is painting her as shallow?  I struggled with this for a lot of the book; if the author is painting her as such, it's actually pretty subtle and well done, because it's not enough to turn me against her or make me doubt her, but I've definitely noted it.

If I knew the author well enough to feel confident, I would be creeped out by how uneasy the character makes me. But writing this, I realize that I have had another piece of important information that I was ignoring; Wren. The other point of view character has a very different voice and a very different life and personality. But there's no hint in Wren of any reason to doubt her judgement, in spite of her isolation and ignorance. 

In fact, after the two stories intersect, Wren offers a check on Nicolette's observations. The language Nicolette uses about Wren doesn't quite jibe with the character we know from Wren's chapters; a good deal of Nicolette's shallowness comes through in how she perceives Wren (as "little" and "innocent").

I'm nearing the end of the book now, but I think I've talked myself around to trusting the author. Which has me excited to get back to it and see what's going to happen; I'm pretty sure we're coming up on a big twist.

I stand by my assessment that there are some pacing problems with the first half. But there's also a compelling story in there, and now I very much want to know how it ends.

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