How We Disappeared, by Jing-Jing Lee (Review)

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How We Disappeared
by Jing-Jing Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Hanover Square Press

Synopsis: 

Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked, leaving only two survivors and one tiny child.

In a neighboring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is strapped into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel where she is forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman.” After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced still haunts her.

In the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is sitting beside his ailing grandmother when he overhears a mumbled confession. He sets out to discover the truth, wherever it might lead, setting in motion a chain of events he never could have foreseen.

Weaving together two time lines and two very big secrets, this stunning debut opens a window on a little-known period of history, revealing the strength and bravery shown by numerous women in the face of terrible cruelty. Drawing in part on her family’s experiences, Jing-Jing Lee has crafted a profoundly moving, unforgettable novel about human resilience, the bonds of family and the courage it takes to confront the past.

ratingfour

My thanks to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

How We Disappeared is a beautiful, heartbreaking historical fiction novel with an element of mystery. There are several different story lines woven together with different point-of-view characters, but the strongest part of the novel while, also perhaps being the most difficult to read, was Wang Di’s experience. Wang Di is taken from her family during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as an innocuously named “comfort woman.”

Jing-Jing Lee’s writing is beautiful and the character of Wang Di brings a personality to a very real tragedy that could otherwise feel quite distant and abstract in today’s day and age. Despite the plethora of WWII historical fiction, there seem to be comparatively few novels which acknowledge the horrific abuse which “comfort women” suffered, much less the lack of understanding these women would have received from their fellow countrymen after the war. Despite the reality that this was a situation of sexual slavery, Wang Di knows that she cannot expect sympathy, and people will treat her as if she consented and, in doing so, betrayed her country to the Japanese invaders. Lee has portrayed that heartbreak and internalization of shame flawlessly.

While Wang Di’s story was much more dramatic, 12-year-old Kevin definitely won me over as well. His grandmother’s deathbed confession turns his understanding of his family upside-down, and he is determined to solve the mystery without the aid of his father. While his story isn’t exactly lighthearted, it definitely provides a counter balance to Wang Di’s much darker storyline and feels like an adventure.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed How We Disappeared, and definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction. I’ve seen it recommended to fans of Pachinko several times, and while I understand the comparison, I do think How We Disappeared has much better pacing (and it’s also about 150 pages shorter.) Jing-Jing Lee has brought an under-represented bit of history to life in this novel.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read How We Disappeared? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

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The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, by Juliet Grames (Review)

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The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna 
by Juliet Grames

Genre: Historical Fiction, Cultural

Length: 464 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Ecco Press

Synopsis: 

In this stunning debut novel, a young woman tells the story behind two elderly sisters’ estrangement, unraveling family secrets stretching back a century and across the Atlantic to early 20th century Italy

For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family is his absence.

When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.

In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.

ratingfour

My thanks to Ecco Press for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.


“This is the story of Mariastella Fortuna the Second, called Stella, formerly of Ievoli, a mountain village of Calabria, Italy, and lately of Connecticut, in the United States of America. Her life stretched over more than a century, and during that life she endured much bad luck and hardship. This is the story how she never died.”

This book was an absolute dream. Let me get the negative out of the way first and say that the only thing that’s keeping me from rating it a full five stars is that the pacing sometimes felt a bit slow. That being said, the writing style was phenomenal and Grames really made these characters feel intimately real.

This novel is the life story and family history of Stella Fortuna, with a series of near-death instances providing the backbone of the plot. Stella was born in a rural Italian village about a hundred years ago. Her father is about as useless as can be, but her mother loves her dearly and Stella is fiercely protective of her younger sister, Tina (at least when they are young.) The story follows the family from their origins in Italy to the end of Stella’s life in the US, long after her family emigrates on the cusp of WWII.

This may sound odd, but one of my favorite things about this book was Grames’ choice of narrator; the book is told from the point of view of a descendant of Stella. The narrator’s voice is understated for most of the book, but there are moments when her personality shines through, and I think telling the story from the point of view of one of Stella’s distant family members was a perfect choice. She is distant enough from the events of the story that she doesn’t seem to have a vested interest in skewing her telling, but she is close enough to Stella as a person that there’s a real sense of emotional connection.

Grames explores Stella’s difficult transition in America so convincingly. Dragged across an ocean by a father she never even loved, Stella feels cut off from a vital part of herself. What was supposed to feel like a new beginning simply leaves her feeling unmoored, and it’s not long before her parents are rushing to marry her off. Having grown up witnessing her father’s treatment of her mother, the very last thing Stella wants is a husband.

I spent a lot of time reading this book thinking of how different things would have been for Stella had she been born in another generation or another place. Living in that time period and having the extra pressure as an immigrant to fall in line with what’s considered “acceptable” behavior for a woman, there’s a great tragedy in knowing that in another time, Stella could have lived the life she wanted without scrutiny.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a lovely novel and an excellent choice for those who enjoy reading historical fiction and family sagas.

Content warnings: rape, sexual abuse of children

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Thank you so much for reading! Let’s talk in the comments! Tell me about a novel you love that follows the main character’s entire life story.

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WWW Wednesday 05/08/2019

Welcome to another WWW Wednesday! This meme is hosted by Taking on a World of Words. To participate, just answer the following three questions:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

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I’m currently reading…

CaptureThe Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna
by Juliet Grames
(Copy provided by publisher)

This novel is the story of Stella Fortuna, her childhood in an Italian village, and making a new life in the US as her family immigrates on the cusp of WWII. Lisa See calls it the “quintessential American immigrant story.” Grames’ writing is so lovely and particularly impressive for a debut novel!

The Plot to Cool the Planet
by Sam Bleicher
(Copy provided by publisher)

This is a weird one to categorize… It has some mystery and science fiction elements. The book begins with the murder of an inconveniently outspoken climate change scientist. I’m not quite sure what I think about it yet.

I recently finished reading…

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Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson
I think most people have read Anderson’s novel, Speak, at some point in their lives. (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a young adult novel about a young girl in high school struggling with the aftermath of a sexual assault. Read it. Really.) Shout is a book of poetry that shares a lot of thematic elements with that novel. I don’t do full reviews of poetry on this blog, because it feels even more subjective than reviewing a novel and I don’t like that, but I do highly recommend this book. (Content warning for sexual violence, obviously.)

Lili de Jong, by Janet Benton
This is a historical fiction novel about a young woman who finds herself in the unfortunate position of being pregnant and unwed in 1883. She goes to a home for unwed mothers with the intention of giving her baby up for adoption once she is born, but Lili finds herself unable to do so. It’s a really lovely novel about love, resilience, and injustice.

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
(Copy provided by NetGalley.) You can read my full review hereMiddlegame is a seriously fun adult fantasy novel about two young almost-twins who were made, not born, and about the dark forces that threaten them.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West
Lindy West has packed this essay collection with a balance of humor and vulnerability. West has never been quite what the world wanted her to be, from her time as a painfully shy and awkward kid to an outspoken, large woman. She’s open about her insecurities, but seems to have largely overcome them. I really loved this essay collection.

Looker, by Laura Sims
This is categorized as a thriller; a lot of other reviewers have pointed out that the label doesn’t feel quite right, and I’m inclined to agree. Looker follows the downward spiral of a professor who has recently been left by her husband. She is obsessed with her neighbor, an actress, and her seemingly perfect life. It’s a really odd book, and it was disconcerting spending time in the head of such a venomous POV character. (Content warning for harm to animals.)

The Girl He Used to Know, by Tracy Garvis Graves
I don’t read much romance, but I was lucky enough to meet the author of this at a recent book signing, so I decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. This is a super sweet love story about second chances. The main character, Annika, is on the autism spectrum, and the way that impacts her life features heavily in the story. The main narrative is about Annika and her college sweetheart, Jonathan, rekindling a romance after losing touch for years.

Up next…

42550681How We Disappeared
by Jing-Jing Lee
(copy provided by NetGalley)

Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked, leaving only two survivors and one tiny child.In a neighboring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is strapped into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel where she is forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman.” After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced still haunts her.In the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is sitting beside his ailing grandmother when he overhears a mumbled confession. He sets out to discover the truth, wherever it might lead, setting in motion a chain of events he never could have foreseen.Weaving together two time lines and two very big secrets, this stunning debut opens a window on a little-known period of history, revealing the strength and bravery shown by numerous women in the face of terrible cruelty. Drawing in part on her family’s experiences, Jing-Jing Lee has crafted a profoundly moving, unforgettable novel about human resilience, the bonds of family and the courage it takes to confront the past.

jennabookish

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What are you reading this week? Any thoughts on the books listed in this post?  Please feel free to discuss or share WWW links in the comments!

 

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire


Middlegame
by Seanan McGuire

Genre: Fantasy

Length: 528 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Tor.com

Synopsis: 

New York Times bestselling and Alex, Nebula, and Hugo-Award-winning author Seanan McGuire introduces readers to a world of amoral alchemy, shadowy organizations, and impossible cities in the standalone fantasy, Middlegame.

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

ratingfour

My thanks to NetGalley and Tor.com for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Middlegame is a deliciously dark and fun adult fantasy novel. Imagine one day finding out there was more than a grain of truth in the fairy tales you grew up reading. Roger and Dodger grew up in a world where a series of books about the “Up-and-Under,” written by Asphodel Baker, were hiding alchemical truths under a thin layer of fantasy. These two almost-twins find out that there is a lot more to the world and to themselves than they ever imagined.

While the story itself is a lot of fun (full of psychic links, time travel, and danger), the absolute high point of this book for me was exploring the relationship between Roger and Dodger. They meet for the first time in their own heads, with a seven-year-old Roger trying to convince himself that the girl’s voice in his head is just a new imaginary friend he’s dreamed up. Except… she knows things he doesn’t, mainly how to do the math homework he’s been totally failing to comprehend.

Roger and Dodger are polar opposites in a lot of ways; Roger lives for books and words, and Dodger lives for the straight-forward world of math. But they’re also two sides of the same coin, with their weird ability to see into each other’s minds and a strange sense of not truly belonging. They love one another fiercely and their bond really jumps off the page.

If I have any complaint about this book, it’s that the pacing can feel a bit off at times. At over 500 pages, it is a bit long, but for the most part is very engrossing. Given the sheer size of the book, it also seems odd that the rules of the universe don’t feel entirely pinned down, although perhaps this will vary from reader to reader, as I’m only passably familiar with a lot of the things McGuire employs in this book, like the Doctrine of Ethos, alchemy, and other vaguely magical concepts.

Middlegame is a highly ambitious novel and a perfect choice for those of us who like our books a bit on the weird side. Great for fans of books like The Seven 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Stuart Turton), The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson), and Dark Matter (Blake Crouch).

**content warning: suicide attempt, violence, mild gore**

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Thank you for reading! This was my first Seanan McGuire book and I’ll definitely be checking out more of her work. Tell me about an author you’ve recently discovered in the comments!

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Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders, by Billy Jensen (Review)

Currently listening to: Chase Darkness With Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders, by Billy Jensen.
(Currently an Audible exclusive! Thank you to @audible for providing a free copy in exchange for a review!)
Jensen first came on to my...
Chase Darkness with Me
by Billy Jensen

Genre: True Crime

Length:

Release date: April 11, 2019

Publisher: Audible Audio

Synopsis: 

Have you ever wanted to solve a murder? Gather the clues the police overlooked. Put together the pieces. Identify the suspect.

Journalist Billy Jensen spent 15 years investigating unsolved murders, fighting for the families of victims. Every story he wrote had one thing in common – it didn’t have an ending. The killer was still out there.

But after the sudden death of a friend, crime writer Michelle McNamara, Billy became fed up. Following a dark night, he came up with a plan. A plan to investigate past the point when the cops have given up. A plan to solve the murders himself.

In Chase Darkness with Me, you’ll ride shotgun as Billy identifies the Halloween Mask Murderer, finds a missing girl in the California Redwoods, and investigates the only other murder in New York City on 9/11. You’ll hear intimate details of the hunts for two of the most terrifying serial killers in history: his friend Michelle’s pursuit of the Golden State Killer which is chronicled in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, a book Billy helped finish after Michelle’s passing, and his own quest to find the murderer of the Allenstown 4 family.

Gripping, complex, unforgettable, Chase Darkness with Me is an examination of the evil forces that walk among us, illustrating a novel way to catch those killers, and a true crime narrative unlike any you’ve listened to before.

ratingfive

My thanks to Audible for allowing me free access to this audio book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. This audio book is currently an Audible Exclusive. 

True crime can be a touchy subject. What are the ethics of consuming someone else’s tragedy as entertainment? Jensen’s work and the way he works to essentially crowd-source murder investigations means that this book necessarily tangles with some of the thornier ethical questions surrounding true crime. The overall impression is of a man with deep respect for the wishes of families searching for answers about their loved ones; there is no hint of voyeurism or sensationalism.

Chase Darkness with Me explores Jensen’s early work as a journalist, working at the beck and call of news organizations and being told what to cover. After experiencing the shame and discomfort of being pressed to pester a grieving family for an interview, he decided to do things his own way, which would not involve sitting idly on the sidelines. Jensen began digging into unsolved crimes, using social media ads to blast targeted areas with surveillance footage, sketches of suspects, or whatever else he had to work with.  The method is simple but effective. Jensen walks the listener through the twists and turns of the cases he was able to help solve with the aid of the public and social media.

Michelle McNamara, author of I’ll be Gone in the Dark and friend of Billy Jensen, also plays a role in this book. Jensen was one of the writers who helped to complete I’ll be Gone in the Dark from Michelle’s notes after her sudden death in 2016. Chase Darkness with Me touches on Jensen’s friendship with Michelle and his efforts to ensure that her tireless research into the then unsolved case of the Golden State Killer was not wasted. Michelle McNamara unfortunately passed away before police ever made an arrest in the case, but Jensen was able to see his friend’s work come to fruition in 2018 with the arrest of James DeAngelo. (The official stance of police is that Michelle’s book did not have an impact on the case, but Jensen and many of Michelle’s fans have their doubts.)

The book is as much a call to action as it is storytelling, with an addendum outlining the do’s and don’ts for readers who may want to do investigative work of their own. Jensen’s rules place the wishes of the victims’ families at the forefront and also emphasize the importance of backing off when police have a suspect in their sights; the last thing anyone investigating a crime wants to do is give the culprit a heads-up that they’re being watched closely and cause them to run. While extra-judicial investigative work is necessarily controversial, Jensen clearly adheres to a strict set of guidelines which maximize his chance of being an asset rather than a liability.

Chase Darkness with Me is true crime at its best, told with utmost care and compassion for the victims of each case. It’s not true crime writing in the typical sense, as the author has inserted himself into these stories in a much more direct manner than most writers, but I think the writing is stronger for it. Each case is intensely personal to Jensen and this absolutely shines through in the final product.

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Thank you for reading! Do you have any thoughts on the ethics of true crime writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments! jennabookish

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WWW Wednesday 04/24/2019

Welcome to another WWW Wednesday! This meme is hosted by Taking on a World of Words. To participate, just answer the following three questions:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

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I’m currently reading…

CaptureMiddlegame
by Seanan McGuire
(Free copy provided by publisher.)

This is a fantasy novel and my first book by Seanan McGuire, and I’m already a fan. Middlegame is deliciously weird and fascinating.

Becoming
by Michelle Obama

The library wait list for this book was ridiculous, but I’m finally reading it and it’s worth the wait.

The Plot to Cool the Planet
by Sam Bleicher
(Free copy provided by publisher.)

I’m not far into this, so I’m not sure what to think about it yet. It reads a bit like a dystopian novel. Global warming has reached a crisis point and drastic measures need to be taken to preserve life on earth.

I recently finished reading…

Capture.PNG

Chase Darkness With Me
by Billy Jensen
(Free copy provided by Audible.)

Review to come! Billy Jensen is a true crime writer and helped finish Michelle McNamara’s book (I’ll be Gone in the Dark) after her sudden passing. Chase Darkness With Me is about his investigative work on other unsolved crimes.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
by Anissa Gray

I don’t think I’ll be reviewing this one. It’s essentially about the aftershocks in a family when a couple is suddenly arrested and their children go to live with other family members. I liked the concept, but felt a bit lukewarm towards the actual execution.

The Farm
by Joanne Ramos
(Free copy provided by publisher.)

The Farm is about a facility serving up surrogate moms for hire to the super rich. The novel explores the idea of bodily autonomy and blurry lines of consent, privilege, etc. Read my review here.

Up next…

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Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens

A novel about a young woman determined to make her way in the wilds of North Carolina, and the two men that will break her isolation open.

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. She’s barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark.

But Kya is not what they say. Abandoned at age ten, she has survived on her own in the marsh that she calls home. A born naturalist with just one day of school, she takes life lessons from the land, learning from the false signals of fireflies the real way of this world. But while she could have lived in solitude forever, the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. Drawn to two young men from town, who are each intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world–until the unthinkable happens.

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What are you reading this week? Any thoughts on the books listed in this post?  Please feel free to discuss or share WWW links in the comments!

 

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos (Review)


The Farm
by Joanne Ramos

Genre: Fiction

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Random House

Synopsis: 

Nestled in the Hudson Valley is a sumptuous retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages–and all of it for free. In fact, you get paid big money–more than you’ve ever dreamed of–to spend a few seasons in this luxurious locale. The catch? For nine months, you belong to the Farm. You cannot leave the grounds; your every move is monitored. Your former life will seem a world away as you dedicate yourself to the all-consuming task of producing the perfect baby for your überwealthy clients.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother, is thrilled to make it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her own young daughter’s well-being, Jane grows desperate to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on delivery–or worse.

Heartbreaking, suspenseful, provocative, The Farm pushes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit to the extremes, and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures and the futures of those they love.

ratingthree

My thanks to Random House & NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The synopsis for The Farm may have you expecting a dystopian novel of sorts, but the reality of the book is a lot closer to the real world than that. The Farm is less about government control run amok (à la Handmaid’s Tale) than it is about blurry lines of consent surrounding bodily autonomy.

No one forces the women in this book to go to the Farm to carry someone else’s baby, and they are paid quite handsomely for their troubles. But Ramos clearly wants the reader to ask which women had meaningful alternatives on the table and which did not. Entering a contract with Golden Oaks involves handing over all of one’s own agency for the duration of the pregnancy. The women may be pampered at the Farm,  but they sign an NDA, are unable to leave the premises, their internet activity is monitored, and they must apply for the privilege of visits from family members. The women who enter these contracts are overwhelmingly non-white immigrants with few other prospects.

The novel switches perspectives between multiple women connected to the farm: Mae, the power hungry and wealthy woman running the operation, Jane, a young single mother and immigrant desperate for the paycheck, Reagan, an upper middle class white woman who signed up primarily to relinquish her financial dependence on her family, and Ate, Jane’s older cousin who helped her get her “job” at the Farm. The differing perspectives really highlight the points Ramos wanted to raise in regards to privilege, but the sheer number of perspectives presented their own challenge. While Jane was definitely the most developed, none of these women ever felt really fleshed out, making it difficult to connect to the story.

The premise behind this novel is interesting and unique, and Ramos raises a lot of questions about agency and privilege. There was loads of promise in this book and there are moments that really shine, but the overall experience was just okay for me. No spoilers, but the resolution felt really lacking; the story skips forward several years for the epilogue, and the changes that have occurred in the interim feel unearned. All in all, this provides a lot of food for thought, but I wanted to love this book more than I did.

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