Firstly, let’s acknowledge the incredible cover art by Illustrator Aykut Aydogdu. I think this cover art is half the attraction and hype of this book. So good job, marketing team.
Alright let’s get to it. Few-to-no spoilers for this part (when regarding specific plot-points). Just a straight-shot review. If you’d like to see my in-depth analysis, read “Getting Through the Weeds” below.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power has been called a combination of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies by literally every popular review website. Except, it’s really like a knock-off teen version of the movie Annihilation and a watered-down version of Lord of the Flies without the social commentary undertones. The writing was vague, the plot was thin and often petty. For a book saturated with powerful girls, this book was seriously lacking some girl power.
Wilder Girls is set in a time period most likely close to ours, where a group of students at a boarding school in Maine are attacked by a mysterious island disease that kills males quickly and leaves the females with nature-influenced transformations. With anything from scales to second spines, these girls are fighting for their lives. Meanwhile, the flora around the school continues to morph and a group of scientists search for answers to help them (from a distance). The story is told from split perspective of two best friends Hetty and Byatt, while other girls and teachers are splattered in scenes here and there.
The premise of Wilder Girls is obviously an interesting one, with potential for political commentary, LGBTQ+ romances and conversations (when considering the “biological” response to the disease), and scenes of girls being kick-ass. The author did a great job of making an ailment that might have been humorous actually seem terrifying and even cool at parts. But I came into this book expecting powerful girl romance and great story.
Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen. The romance was forced and weak. The “feminist” aspect of the book was non-existent. The writing was somehow so vague and dream-like that moments felt under-described and blurry. As if the picture wasn’t completely formulated when it was written. All in all, I felt super disappointed by this book. Especially because I felt like it had so much potential. If you’re into girl drama and an interesting setting, then this book might be an okay read for you. But if you were really banking on this book being your next favorite soft Sci-Fi YA, you might be let down too.
Things started out strong. We have a sassy narrator who described their current status, with shocking details of each girls’ mutations. We have some hierarchy shifts with Hetty getting picked to be a supply-runner, which drives some conflict with her loner friend Reese. And then this line:
“She looks almost shy. But Reese doesn’t do shy. Even when she came out to me, it was like a weapon. ‘Queer,’ she said then, as though she was daring me to disagree.”
I don’t know if this passage was just out of place, forced, awkward, or all of the above. Did we have to make it such a clunky statement? This line makes me feel like Reese is obviously going to have a crush on one of the main girls. There’s no tension, no tenderness. It’s just kind of awkward? Maybe I’m crazy.
The relationship between Byatt, Reese, and Hetty gets even more complicated when Reese tells Hetty that she doesn’t want Byatt to be a part of the picture anymore. It’s just cold and toxic, and automatically makes me kind of resent Reese as a person. I want to like the main characters, but they’re all so distant and mean to each other. Constantly bickering over trivial things when they’re all literally dying from a terrible disease. It’s almost like the book is saying girls can’t stop being petty even if their life depends on it.
When Reese kisses Hetty, it was really forced and also inconsequential. They kiss near the beginning and spend most of the rest of the book fighting or running. There’s not much relationship building at all, which was super disappointing. Hetty also seems to have feelings for Byatt, who’s gone for most of the book, but she’s still okay with making out with Reese? Maybe she’s going for a love triangle, but it was pretty lukewarm.
But the trivial conflict of our protagonists is really just the icing over the poorly laid plot. Most of the driving plot points are Hetty sneaking places with little-to-no tension or consequences (at least for her and her BFFs). In a setting of fantastic beasts and creepy mutations, we see very few interactions between our girls and the fauna. The climax of the book isn’t even a major point towards figuring out the diseases. It’s just a bear trying to break into their school. That also somehow gets diluted by the fact that Hetty and Reese escape super easily. Even when the scientists are threatening to blow up their school, because they’ve given up on trying to find a cure, there’s no suspense. I just didn’t care.
It’s definitely a challenge to make readers care about sick characters who are most likely doomed to die a horrible death. But this book didn’t even seem to try to connect characters to readers. Dialogue is pretty shallow and their constant bickering doesn’t help.
Byatt gets separated from Reese and Hetty pretty early on in the book and has her own adventure. Including purposefully giving the disease to a male scientist. I guess he was stupid enough to fall for her sick ass in a couple of minutes and kiss her. Because…feminism?
Speaking of which, feminist literature is supposed to be like a defense or establishment of equal rights of women — whether politically, socially, economically, or otherwise. I don’t think I would ever consider this feminist literature. For one, there’s nothing inherently political about the disease affecting only women. It’s not like The Power, by Naomi Alderman, where this is some sort of revelation of power dynamics. It’s just a hormone reactant. The only feminist power line was this:
“We don’t get to choose what hurts us.”
And yes, true. Preach! But that’s about it in the commentary department. I don’t need a book to be saturated in socioeconomic comments, but just because a book is an all-girl cast doesn’t make it feminist. At least in my opinion.
Byatt was by far the superior character, and I wish the story had been told by her perspective a little earlier on. She had some gorgeous poetry-like paragraphs when she was on drugs with the scientists. But she also had this gut-wrenching self-harm scene that made me tremble with nausea. It was honestly a bit much at times, but I kind of liked that about this book. It was definitely fearless with the horror descriptions. BUT, these clearly written violent details made everything else look even more under described.
There were a couple of logical errors like Hetty breaking open a window with her fist when she had a knife on her to use as a blunt force against the glass. And are you telling me that all they had to do was cut the parasite out of them and they’d be better? No scientist tried that at all before? Instead they just keep trying these drugs and gassing the girls. It’s just a little weird.
I think this book just focuses on the wrong things at the wrong time. The pacing is weird. The characters are just not great people and flat half the time. The concept was definitely interesting, but it just didn’t rock my world.
Change my mind about this book! I want to like it so much more, but right now I feel quite meh about it. What do you think?