This novel by Samantha Hunt has a lot of the ingredients that make up a perfect novel for me. There are two young women, each of a different generation, trying to figure out how to tackle adulthood. There’s a loopy dual-timeline plot: the present-day plot in which Cora, single and pregnant, follows her aunt Ruth on a long walking journey and the past plot in which Ruth is a young woman in a foster home/cult who’s finding her way out by running a scam involving speaking to the dead. There are hints of the supernatural. And none of it quite makes sense until the end.
All of this could work, but it didn’t quite add up for me.
I can probably lay the blame in part on my expectations and my mood. For some reason, I thought this was set further back in the past, leading me to look forward to something like Affinity by Sarah Waters. It’s not like that at all. And I was feeling easily distracted all week, so I may not have sunk into this book as well as I could have at other times.
Still, I think the book has some problems. The main one being the characters. They’re too bland. I never felt a strong reason to care about them. Instead of having strong personalities and voices, they felt like blank slates that events were written on. Most of what we know about Cora and Ruth is what happens to them. Their responses to those events are either absolutely ordinary and predictable or inexplicable to the point of being bizarre.
Cora decides to carry on with her pregnancy despite her married boyfriend’s objections. (The boyfriend, Lord, acts on his objections in one of the most horrifying scenes in the book, but then he’s dropped entirely from the story. That name and his shocking act seemed too portentous to disappear.) So far, none of Cora’s actions seem strange. But then she follows her aunt Ruth, a silent woman who is little more than a stranger Cora has fantasized about, on a months-long walking journey. For no reason other than curiosity, slight discontent, and fear of the future. For months. While pregnant. And Ruth never says a single word.
Ruth is slightly more interesting, but I think it’s more that the events around her are more dramatic. Her relationship with her foster sister, a boy named Nat, starts out feeling like it has potential. The idea that they’re sisters despite Nat’s being a boy is interesting but never goes anywhere much. And there’s a romance that appears out of the blue toward the end, seemingly to move the plot along, not because the seeds were planted from the start.
I’m also tired of religious cult stories where the cults don’t make sense. The multiple religious communities in this book are such a hodge-podge of ideas. Some of that is intentional. One of the leaders just picked up ideas as he came across them, and the other was an obvious hypocrite. But the former theology student in me likes to at least see an attempt at creating a systematic theology for a fictional cults.
I was surprised to find myself as down on this book as I am, and it is certainly possible that expectations did me in. But I think this might be the kind of book that works only if you sink into it and enjoy the ride without examining the details much. I can and have enjoyed many books like that, and I always feel a bit let down when I see reviews complaining about the book’s lack of logic. But when you can’t get immersed in the world of a book like this, the niggling issues become glaring problems that build. That’s what happened here. And the result is disappointment.