I loved Jessica Spotswood’s historical fantasy series, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, so when I heard that she was releasing her first contemporary, I was desperate to read it, even before I had any idea what it was about.
In Wild Swans, Ivy Milbourne struggles with a family legacy of great talent and great tragedy. Her great great grandmother was a famous portrait painter, but killed herself and two of her daughters when she drove her car in front of a train. Her great grandmother was a Pulitzer prize winning poet, until she was murdered. Her grandmother was a famous artist, until she drowned herself in the bay. Her mother was a talented singer, at least until she ran away when Ivy was a baby. And Ivy… Ivy doesn’t know what she is. She wants to live up to her family legacy, but she’s never discovered any particular talent, and she has no idea what she wants to do with her life.
Wild Swans is a quick read (I devoured it in less than a day), but it’s not a beach read. Two big story threads intersect in the novel. The first is Ivy’s struggle to live up to her grandfather’s expectations, the promise of her family’s legacy, and her struggles with being, as she claims, mediocre. The other involves her mother, who returns to live with Ivy and her grandfather after being out of contact for fifteen years, bringing two younger daughters with her.
Despite that second dramatic set-up, this is mostly a low-key book: family drama in a small town where everyone knows your business, and a rising high-school senior who feels she’ll never live up to expectations. And it’s beautifully written. Sweet and compelling, with emotion that feels real. I noticed sentences because they hit me in the heart, not because I was thinking, “wow, the author really worked hard on that sentence.” After reading a whole bunch of artsy, overwritten YA novels, more concerned with authorial voice than engaging the reader, Wild Swans is like a breath of fresh air. Effortlessly magical.
If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that the mother character felt a little one-dimensional until near the end. She’s incredibly unlikeable, cruel and destructive, and although that’s a valid character choice, there was part of me wanting to see a sympathetic side to her. It shows up eventually, but it’s complicated, and I never felt like I fully understood her perspective.
Another element that might be good or bad, depending on your taste, is that Wild Swans feels like a slice from the character’s lives over a set period of time. They lived their lives before the book began, and they continue afterward. I found the ending satisfying, but it’s not a neat ending, where everything feels tied up or resolved. The characters’ lives continue after the book closes, and many elements of that future remain uncertain. Personally, I liked this about the novel, but I can imagine that others might find it unsatisfying.
But either way, Wild Swans is a fantastic book. Great characters, great writing, and incredibly readable. It’s lowkey, and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommended!