In 1936, Alice Van Cleve, newly married to the son of one of Kentucky's wealthiest and most influential coal miners, finds herself at loose ends. Life as Bennett Van Cleve's wife is not the fairytale she was led to believe it would be, and she is in desperate need of a cause to lose herself in. So, when the call goes out for a group of fearless, charity-minded women to become pack horse librarians, delivering books to some of the most remote settlements in Kentucky, Alice jumps at the chance to get involved.
The leader of their little band of traveling librarians is Marjorie O'Hara, the daughter of an infamous bootlegger, determined to live life on no one's terms but her own. She knows her own worth, and as she and Alice begin to forge a friendship, Alice learns more than she ever thought possible about herself, the people who call Kentucky home, and what it really means to find a cause she can believe in.
AAR reviewers Shannon and Lisa read Jojo Moyes’ latest novel, The Giver of Stars, and got together to share their thoughts on it.
Shannon: I've read a bit about some of the programs Eleanor Roosevelt put in place during her time as First Lady, but the pack horse library initiative was something I knew very little about until earlier this year when I read Kim Michele Richardson's fascinating novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Did you have any prior knowledge about it before diving into The Giver of Stars?
Lisa: I knew absolutely nothing about the program (in spite of loving the Roosevelt ladies), so the book was a huge revelation to me! But now I want to know more about them.
Shannon: Alice is the story's central character. She's new to married life, and also new to life in the U.S. As I read, I was constantly aware of how ill-prepared Alice was for her new existence. She seemed to have lived a pretty pampered life before marrying into the Van Cleve family, but the social customs and societal expectations of Kentucky were vastly different from those she grew up with in England. How do you think all of this played into shaping Alice as a character?
Lisa: Poor, poor Alice. I definitely didn’t pity her but she was so painfully sheltered and so painfully unprepared for both the wilderness of Kentucky and the notion of her husband’s world (even the physical realities of married life) that I couldn’t help but want to pat her on the head and tell her it was going to be all right. This novel is about how she grows up into a woman with spine, nerve and values that matter to her – how she figures out how to fight, and a lot of readers will appreciate growing with her. Marjorie knocked my socks off harder than Alice did, though.
Shannon: Marjorie was pretty great, wasn't she? I really enjoyed getting to know her. I loved her brash disregard for the social niceties prized by so many of the upper-class residents of her town. She was ready and willing to seize any opportunities presented to her and make them work for her. She served as the perfect foil for the softer, quieter Alice.
Lisa: Marjorie was, in two words, The Best. The duet between Alice and Marjorie reminded me of Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger’s duel in Cold Mountain – the innocent, cultured lady and the salt-of-the-earth hick, making it work. She was my favorite; I loved her fearlessness, and how her I-don’t-give-a-hoot exterior could be penetrated – by her eventual fondness for Alice, her love for Sven, for her eventual – well, spoiler on that one and I won’t reveal it, but when she starts stepping outside herself a little she becomes even greater.
Shannon: Alice and Marjorie are joined by four other women, but we don't spend much time in any of their heads. My personal favorite was Kathleen, who joins the library about midway through the book. She's extremely strong and competent with an insider's knowledge of mountain life, and I loved her quiet passion for the written word.
Lisa: I was fond of Kathleen but Izzy was probably my favorite. She deserved that success and a singing break-out of her own! All of the women are fascinating in their own way, from smart Kathleen to wonderful Sophia to Beth, who finds her rebellion.
Shannon: Izzy was amazing! So, the story features a couple of romances. I really enjoyed them both, though I found myself especially invested in Marjorie's. There was something super special about the way she fought to retain her independence while still opening her heart to Sven.
Lisa: I was definitely invested in the Sven/Marjorie connection – it was funny and sweet and a good give-and-take. But Fred and Alice were fun in their own way – lots of banter between them, and Alice’s oh-my! personality braced against his more world-weary one was very enjoyable.
Shannon: The villain of the novel is Jeffrey Van Cleve, Alice's father-in-law. He's one of the most odious men I've read about this year, and I was more than ready for him to be knocked down a peg or two. Unfortunately, I don't think the author did such a great job wrapping up the part of the plot that dealt with him. He was so very opposed to everything Alice and Marjorie believed in, and I found it a little hard to buy into the idea that he would just sort of slink off hanging his head in shame.
Lisa: Yeah, I think Jeffrey’s humiliation comes through his son - which doesn’t really work – and the cycle repeating itself with Bennett didn’t sit well with me, either. It was too easy for the author to give us a ‘you have your side, I’ll have mine’ ending and let him keep his surface reputation in the end.
Shannon: Good point. It's the only part of the novel that left me wanting more.
Lisa: Okay, what did you think of the central plot beat – a big court case? I won’t spoil what it’s about, but did you enjoy it? I thought it was well-handled – rarely a sentiment I have for third-act court denouements.
Shannon: I did enjoy it - it added a bit of suspense to the overall story, something that worked surprisingly well.
Lisa: And what of the way the book treats life in the hills, and its less educated characters?
Shannon: I thought Moyes did a great job with this aspect of the novel. She doesn't fall into the trap of stereotyping the hill-folk, but neither does she idealize or romanticize their existence. Did her depiction work for you?
Lisa: I actually felt the opposite way in a few cases, that she went over the top sometimes, but mainly kept the characters true to themselves.
Shannon: Overall, I found this to be an utterly captivating read. I sped through it in about a day and a half, and it's a book I'm so glad I read. My grade is going to be an A-. I was fully prepared to give it a perfect A, but the ending of the Jeffrey debacle pulled it down just a bit. What about you?
Lisa: It’s a B+ for me. I was very gripped by the story, very absorbed in it and its characters, but everything involved in how the plotline ends with Jeffrey didn’t work for me. Sometimes there were stock story beats that I couldn’t stand behind, and there were some incredibly easy character choices when it came to the minor characters involved.
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