Today I am reviewing A Wild Winter Swan by Gregory Maguire as part of the Random Things Blog Tour, and you can find the rest of the schedule below. Please do check out the rest of the tour, and this fantastic book.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Following her brother’s death and her mother’s emotional breakdown, Laura now lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in a lonely townhouse she shares with her old-world, strict, often querulous grandparents. But the arrangement may be temporary. The quiet, awkward teenager has been getting into trouble at home and has been expelled from her high school for throwing a record album at a popular girl who bullied her. When Christmas is over and the new year begins, Laura may find herself at boarding school in Montreal.
Nearly unmoored from reality through her panic and submerged grief, Laura is startled when a handsome swan boy with only one wing lands on her roof. Hiding him from her ever-bickering grandparents, Laura tries to build the swan boy a wing so he can fly home. But the task is too difficult to accomplish herself. Little does Laura know that her struggle to find help for her new friend parallels that of her grandparents, who are desperate for a distant relative’s financial aid to save the family store.
As he explores themes of class, isolation, family, and the dangerous yearning to be saved by a power greater than ourselves, Gregory Maguire conjures a haunting, beautiful tale of magical realism that illuminates one young woman’s heartbreak and hope as she begins the inevitable journey to adulthood.
“Fly out into the world and make your own living,” the wicked Queen told them. “Fly away like big birds without a voice.”
But she did not harm the Princes as much as she meant to, for they turned into eleven magnificent white swans. With a weird cry, they flew out of the palace window, across the park into the woods.
The Wild Swans – Hans Christian Anderson, Jean Hersholt (translator)
How does the story end? What becomes of the brother who retained a swan’s wing in place of an arm? I have to admit I’ve never read the original HCA fairy tale, but the story of brothers being turned into swans while the sister tries to save them is one that I’ve read many times and despite not having read the original it is certainly one of my favourite tales. As a result A Wild Winter Swan immediately caught my attention, and I was intrigued to see how Maguire would take that tale and weave it into a completely different place and time than the original story. The answer is through a quirky, charming story that is a perfect story for curling up with as the world turns colder.
Fairy tale retellings are always fascinating because there are so many ways to approach them, but at the same time, they can be a little hit or miss, particularly if they try to stick too rigidly to the original tale. That is very much not the case here. There are some very obvious links, such as an answer to what happened to that second brother, and an overall awareness of the original tale, but otherwise, the retelling is incredibly subtle. It’s as though Maguire took the notion of the Wild Swans and peeled it right back to its base, as though it was a painting and he was taking its key pigments, and then transforming them into a completely different painting, with just enough in the lingering brush strokes to echo the original. I really like this approach, and the way he has connected the two, although I can see how if you were familiar with the original, or the forms it has taken since then, it might be a little harder to connect with the magic of the retelling.
I say a little more difficult, and not impossible, because A Wild Winter Swan while a retelling is also very much its own thing. Part of that is the setting – 1960s New York and in the heart of an Italian family is a far cry from the royalty and much older setting of the original and brings with it its own unique charms and personality, and that is one of the reasons this book works so well. It is different. I also like that it is magical realism tinged with historical fantasy, rather than overt fantasy, in part because it elevates the fantastical elements. After all, they sparkle like freshly fallen snow against reality, and again it feeds into that sense of whimsy and wonder.
Then there is the writing.
Maguire’s writing was undoubtedly my favourite aspect of the book, and will certainly have me checking out some of his other works in the near future. Firstly, there is the way he manages to capture the different elements of the story – from the magical to the chaos of an Italian family dealing with very believable and understandable struggles, to the unsteady steps of a teenager trying to find not just her place, but her wings so that she can fly in the world. This is paired with some truly beautiful descriptions, and there were places where I would just pause to savour the prose. For the most part, the pacing was spot on, although there were a couple of places where it felt as though the story had been stretched out longer than it necessarily needed to be, but then it all comes together at the end and those different elements are brought together. Another part of the writing that I really loved, is how there is a story within a story, as Laura tries to narrate her own tale – and how that narration shifts, and falters as her emotions and the situation she finds herself in also changes. It was a very creative way of telling the story, and also a delightful little nod to how fairy tales are often told.
This was also very much a tale about the characters, and for the most part, I really enjoyed the cast that Maguire has created. Laura had her moments where I wanted to reach out and shake her, but at the same time that felt so very in character. This is a teenager on the cusp of so many changes, and dealing with loss and family, and being bullied and suffering the fallout of having stood up for herself in the wrong way and facing changes she didn’t want, and that bleeds through into her character voice, into the tale she weaves and into her attitude. I loved the relationship she had with the cook. Then there were the grandparents, and some of those exchanges were my favourite moments in the book, it was as messy and complicated as any family and Maguire captured that perfectly. Of the character, I will say that Hans, our swan, was probably my least favourite even though he was that key tie to the original tale, just because he didn’t feel as well-fleshed out as the rest of the characters, although he was essential to the story.
Overall, this really was a delight to read and definitely the perfect book for curling up under a blanket on a winter’s night. A wonderful blend of whimsy and warmth, and a fantastically quirky retelling of an old tale.
Gregory Maguire received his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University, and his B.A. from the State University of New York at Albany. He was a professor and co-director at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature from 1979-1985. In 1987 he co-founded Children’s Literature New England. He still serves as co-director of CLNE, although that organization has announced its intention to close after its 2006 institute.
The bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror Mirror, and the Wicked Years, a series that includes Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men. Wicked, now a beloved classic, is the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad.
He has three adopted children and is married to painter Andy Newman. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.