I've spent too much time working on this review as is. I want to be done with it, move onto reading other books and writing my own book, and I just...Well, my thoughts follow, so you'll understand my need to be done and carry on now rather than linger.
There are spoilers are ahead; you’ve been warned. This is a book that is hard to review without spoiling it.
Do you ever read a book and love how it’s written but can’t stand what it’s about? Gather the Daughters is that book for me, and it makes me feel incredulous in my indecision—do I or do I not like this book overall? Can I give it an honest, wholesome review? Will I do justice to what I felt as I read this book? After the several days I have given myself time to digest and process everything, I’m stuck. Do I rate and review based on the high quality of Melamed’s writing? Which is wonderful, clever, subtle, and even lyrical at times. Or do I rate and review based on the subject matter? Which bothered me greatly and left me groaning “thank god” when I finally finished the book and set it aside.
The language, pacing, character development, and world-building in Gather the Daughters is probably some of the best I’ve come across—I was reminded of how I felt as I savored Beautiful Ruins and The Help in those regards, despite how vastly different these three books are from each other. The balance between those story elements is phenomenal, level, with just the right touches here and there.
"I almost don't mind coming back from summer," she tells Mary, "if I can see the dogs. She pushes her face against the dog and blows into its ears. "The end of my freedom is the beginning of yours, isn't it?" she asks the dog. "Would you like to trade places until next summer?" The dog barks. (130)
But then you delve into contemplation of this fictionalized future on the island these people dwell, and you think on the connections between genders, parents and children, the relationships between children, what it means to come of age and when that coming of age occurs, among other social aspects. It is here that my stomach started to twist, because it was common and encouraged practice for fathers to lay inappropriately with their daughters; girls experiencing their first menstruation at ten years old and getting married and pregnant within year from then; it was frowned upon to push against and question the systems in place; a level of male authority that made me cringe—and why did all this bother me so? I acknowledge that I was disgusted and uncomfortable because of the ethics and expectations cultivated during my life, and I constantly tried to slip past those preconceptions, but it was impossible.
"Who is my little wife?" asks Father in a sugary tone.
"I am," whispers Vanessa.
"And what do wives do?"
Vanessa hesitates. He's never followed up with this question before, and a multitude of answers mill through her mind.
"Do wives stay with their husbands?"
She sighs. "Yes, wives stay with their husbands," she echoes dully.
"Be a good girl," he whispers again. Her heart is clamoring and screaming to go, run out the door, but his pull is stronger and the weight of him on her shoulders drags her to the ground. (212)
Incest, pedophilia, sexism, misogyny, blind religious devotion, those in authority murdering those who questioned the systems in place—each of these are things I’m against to my core. To my absolute core. Melamed utilized these ideas as a way to warn people of the dangers, much like The Handmaid’s Tale, which I understand and get and can appreciate to a certain extent, but I’m not going to lie to you in this review—I couldn’t stand reading about this society despite the ‘why’ behind this book’s existence. There will be plenty of people out there who will read this book and enjoy it, but I am not one of them. I appreciate how it is written and I connected to the characters. This world felt real to me. It was terrifying in its realness.
I like the characters. I hate what they had to go through. I like how well the world was depicted, but I hate what was depicted. I like how intense and tangible the relationships were, but I hated a good portion of them for grating against my ethics.
Do you feel my confliction? The rock and hard place I am stuck between? I both enjoyed the book and despised it, which reminds me of an insightful comment I had seen to someone saying The Handmaid’s Tale book and show made them feel deeply unsettled: “You were supposed to feel uncomfortable. You weren’t supposed to enjoy it.” That response sums up my experience reading this book—uncomfortable and unenjoyable.
I cannot give it 4 or 5 stars, I cannot give it 1 or 2 stars—I think 3 bitchin’ stars is the rating I’ll have to settle with, because that is an in-between, neutral territory to settle. It has an equal amount of positives and negatives, in my opinion, and I can’t go either direction.
If you enjoyed The Village (movie) or The Handmaid's Tale (book or show), you will probably have an interest in Jennie Melamed's Gather the Daughters. It shares similar elements of suspense, social ethics and structure, and solid story-telling.
Happy reading, lovely bitches. I'm going to work through something that brings me good feels now.