Don’t worry: This post contains no explicit spoilers.
Out of the 7 books I took with me on vacation to New Brunswick, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker gripped me deepest. Forget beaches: I’ve read this book on foggy interstate highways, in a hotel room beside Mount Washington, on a dock overlooking the harbor, in the only independent cafe in St Andrews, and I finally finished it driving away from a fresh fish market.
Of course, like any curious librarian, once I realized what a gem this book was I skimmed through the 483 instragram posts tagged with #TheAgeofMiracles to see what types of people were reading this book, and what they had to say about it.
What did I find? Lots of BEST BOOK EVERs, a few brief summaries, comments praising the beautiful language, a surprising number of different covers, lots of accompanying tea cups. And one implicit spoiler. Not from a user’s caption…but from a cover. The quote “Brought to mind Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones” from Times magazine may not seem like a spoiler at first, but it certainly was for me with 100 pages left to go.
The Lovely Bones is a backwards mystery about a young girl who was brutally murdered. As a ghost, she recalls her life and watches her family members readjust to life without her, while attempting to solve her confusing murder. It’s a dark spin on what would otherwise be a fairly cozy mystery story.
The Age of Miracles is a uniquely light dystopia, beginning days after the rotation of the earth has begun to slow. The narrator recalls her life during the adjustment period, at age 11, as the days and nights grew hours longer, and nature began to baffle scientists and complicate everyday life. This truly is a dystopian novel through the eyes of an 11 year-old: mixing the charm and closeness of a family drama with the intrigue and dread of a plausible post-apocalypse.
So what are the similarities between The Age of Miracles and The Lovely Bones? Both are written in a lyrical way, with powerful metaphors that sneak up on you. Both are about an ordinary family experiencing an extraordinary circumstance. And both feature first person narration, both young girls reflecting back on their lives.
So what’s the problem? From the very first sentence of The Lovely Bones, you know that the narrator is dead, and reflecting back on her life. However, the whole time you read The Age of Miracles, you wonder whether the narrator is dead or not. You look for clues. Did she and her family survive “the slowing?” What eventually killed them off, or else, what is their quality of life now in the dark? The closer you get to the end, the more you think it’s impossible that the narrator lived to tell the tale, but the most you love her and hope that she did. This balance between hope and disbelief is a vital aspect to the reading experience of this book. It hooks you; it forces you to participate a little deeper.
I know that one of the reasons The Lovely Bones was so popular is because of its uniquely dead first person narrator. So when I read the comparison between the two books, I lost all hope for Julia of The Age of Miracles. I assumed her and Salmon had suffered the same fate: characters who died full of stories. Now whether or not my assumption was correct, you’ll have to read for yourself. But that’s not the point. The point is that my reading experience was significantly altered for the last 100 pages. I no longer wondered. I only read.
Might this comparison elicit the opposite reaction in another reader? Certainly it might. And that quote probably enticed a lot of Sebold’s fans to buy the book. It may have introduced some mystery-lovers to their first enjoyable dystopia. I’m not saying that the quote was wrong. I am saying that reader’s advisory librarians need to weigh the pros and cons of their book comparisons, and take the reading experience into consideration.
More appropriate comparisons? The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender or Swamplandia by Karen Russel are both magic realism stories featuring young female narrators and family dramas with bright, surprising prose and deeply emotional moments. And no implicit spoilers.
Check out the great book trailer for The Age of Miracles:
Have you ever experienced a spoiler mid-way through a book?