By Julianna Baggott
Little, Brown and Company (August 18, 2015)
Reviewed by Billie Hinton
Julianna Baggott’s newest novel, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, is brilliant and beautiful, quirky and captivating, a multigenerational tale told from four unique points of view: Harriet Wolf’s, her daughter Eleanor’s, and those of her granddaughters, Ruth and Tilton.
Baggott uses the passage of time and very specific individual experiences in a family of women to reveal the ways in which mothers and daughters—and all of us—connect. She embroiders in rich detail, and sometimes tangled knots, to tell a story so lovely and layered I kept starting over at the beginning just to experience it again. It’s the kind of book that compels me to read fast to see what happens while simultaneously meting out pages a few at a time to delay being done with the book.
Harriet Wolf, the main character, is a renowned and reclusive novelist with her own wonder-full life story to tell. She finally does this in her seventh book, a stealthy endeavor which is never published. We get it posthumously and bit by bit as Baggott’s lucky readers: a whimsical, tragic tale laced perfectly with Harriet’s daughter’s and granddaughters’ thoughts on her life and legacy and how she has impacted each of them.The plot is driven by Harriet’s death prior to publishing the seventh book in her Wonder series, leaving a legion of fans and critics waiting for and pressuring her family to find and release this mysterious manuscript.
As the book opens, Eleanor, hospitalized following a heart attack, herself an aging mother reflecting on life, struggles to balance her experiences as Harriet’s daughter with her role as mother to two very different daughters.
Ruth, her eldest, chose to run away from this quirky and complex family of women. She is involved with a much older man in a relationship on the verge of unraveling. Her mother’s heart attack brings her home again.
Tilton, Eleanor’s younger daughter who at 23 has never left home, is the only person alive who knows where the seventh book actually is, entrusted with this secret by Harriet herself. Tilton is a brilliant and quirky young woman, presumably on the autistic spectrum. Her gorgeously-drawn point of view chapters color and connect the empty spaces between grandmother, mother, and sister, pointing the way to secrets to uncover, connections to make, a multigenerational tangle of misunderstandings to unravel. There is a sense of urgency as four stories begin to converge.
Baggott offers, with whimsy and sharp truth, the tale of Harriet’s amazing life, the relationship she forges with her daughter Eleanor, and the split her fame and one singular random event create in this family of women. For this is a story of women, mothers and daughters, and the men who matter to them.
She deftly weaves these women’s thoughts and desires into a larger story, one in which we might all find a familiar place to stand. For me, a 55-year old woman with aging mother and young adult children, Eleanor’s words in the final pages struck deep: Harriet before me and Tilton and Ruthie after me. I’m a joint, an axis, a hinge–with love on either side.
The real beauty of this tale is that, by the end of the book, we have joined with all of them, learning the secrets folded between the layers of three generations, discovering, as they do, that what connects them and what matters is—simply, wonder-fully—love.
BILLIE HINTON is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.