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Ally, Hope's mother, has died. Not long before her death, she made several visits the Lake District in England, researching a biography of Beatrix Potter. Hope, together with Anna Page and Julie are going to Ally's cottage to pack up her things and say goodbye. Soon after they get there, they find a diary written in code. What secrets was Hope's mother trying to hide, and how are these three girls connected to both each other and this place they're visiting for the first time. This is "The Wednesday Daughters" by Meg Waite Clayton.
When I requested the advance reader's copy of this book I had no idea that it was a sequel to Clayton's first novel, "The Wednesday Sisters." I was certain that this would immediately put me at a distinct disadvantage. However, I decided not to set it aside until after reading the first book, since the first chapter opens by explaining the relationship between these women and their mothers. This made me feel initially out of the loop regarding certain things. However, this mostly dissipated after getting about one-third into the story.
What struck me about this book at the onset was how tranquil the writing felt. As if the abundance of the water of the setting lent itself to the fluidity of the text. There's also a very somber feel here, which makes a whole lot of sense, considering the reason for the trip. Plus, we soon find out that it isn't just Hope's mother that's being mourned by these three women. Add to this the legends of ghosts of the region, and you've got yourself the perfect backdrop for a mystery novel.
But this isn't a mystery, or at least not in the classical sense of the genre. Yes, there are things these women end up needing to discover and figure out. The most obvious of these is Ally's diary and breaking its code to find the secrets hidden inside. Less evident is how Clayton uses this as a metaphor for both the literal journeys of these three women and the one Ally is recounting in her journal. This is also echoed with what is the essence of this book. That is, the parallel voyages of self-discovery that all these women experience. This could have been very trite, but Clayton avoids this by leaving all of the detection work to the current trip, by allowing Ally's entries continue to conceal the real reason for her travels. In this, the book is very successful, and is truly character driven.
For a character driven story to be a success, the author's main duty is to make the readers have an emotional connection with the main people she's writing about. You don't have to love them, but you must feel something for them. It is here that I found myself having some difficulties with this book, which I can partially blame on not having read the first book. Throughout the book, the three titular characters - Hope, Julie and Anna Page - constantly refer to each other's parents as "Aunt" and "Uncle." But of course, they're not actually related. Despite reading this explanation in the opening paragraph, I still found myself confused at times, which unfortunately broke the flow of the prose.
Additionally, of these three, Julie seemed the least three dimensional, and therefore harder to identify with. She seemed to hover in the background, and even when her own inner struggle was brought to the forefront, its resolution seemed less believable. With Anna Page, I certainly formed an opinion of her quickly in that I didn't much care for her to begin with, and there was little to change that feeling as the story progressed. Had I been able to gain more sympathy for her, I might have felt more comfortable with how her conflict was resolved. On the other hand, Hope's dilemma was very carefully crafted, and although sometimes you'll want to slap her, the emotional connection with the reader is there throughout. I'm sure that her being the narrator helped with this.
This made me wonder if Clayton didn't put too many focal points into this book. If she had concentrated more on Hope in the wake of Ally's death, and left most of the emotional baggage of the other two out, this could have been an extremely powerful book. This is because you truly feel that Clayton loves, if not adores both Hope and Ally. The fact that Ally only appears here through her diary entries didn't detract from the richness of her character, and made her surprisingly alive. In fact, all of the inclusions of Ally's diaries where she (very uniquely) researches her Beatrix Potter biography are simply stunning to read. Furthermore, her descriptions of the Lake District were lovingly drawn and particularly vivid.
It is obvious that Meg Waite Clayton is an extremely talented writer, with a very unique voice - especially when she's inspired by a character, setting or relationship, and a "must read" for fans of "The Wednesday Sisters." While I believe this would have been a stronger novel if she had concentrated on only one Wednesday Daughter, the writing is such that one can at least partially forgive this. Although it does stand alone for the most part, readers should be advised to read them in order. So while I still recommend it, I have to do so with a few reservations and therefore I'm giving it three and a half stars out of five.
"The Wednesday Daughters" by Meg Waite Clayton goes on sale July 16, 2013, and is available for pre-order via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.
Thank you to Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine, for sending me an advanced reader copy via Netgalley.