by Anna-Marie McLemore
“Not your fault, ” Aracely said. “Not because of you. For you.”
Earlier this year I read McLemore’s acclaimed novel from last year, The Weight of Feathers. It was magical realism of the first order, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And then I read When the Moon Was Ours. And it blew it out of the water. This was the best YA magical realism I have read since the Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (which you should 100% read). This was what I wanted Wink, Poppy, Midnight to be.
When the Moon Was Ours follows Miel, a girl who grows roses from her wrist, and Sam, a boy who paints and hangs moons for her to keep her fears away. They have been best friends since Miel came sweeping into their town when she spilled from the water tower. They have recently become more. But Sam is coming to terms with who he wants to be, and how that might not match up to how he was born. And Miel has caught the eye of the Bonner sisters, four sisters who are renowned in town for their power to make men desire them. The Bonner sisters fear their power has waned since their oldest sister became pregnant, and they look to Miel’s roses to right their world.
What I love here is that everyone is struggling with identity and perception, even the Bonner sisters, who do some really awful things. But they are still presented with compassion, as trapped by their circumstances as Miel and Sam in some ways, though this does not excuse all of the awful things that they do. And yet with this, we still feel the danger. The desperation of these characters could lead to, and at times did lead to, real violence. I think this danger and desperation gets at the heart of the teenage years: the fear of not knowing if one is enough, or even who one really is. Amidst all of this, Miel and Sam are both given consideration and respect. I feel for them. I root for them.
The language in this is gorgeous. McLemore does magical realism well. It’s a genre that I admittedly do not know as well as others. This book makes me want to change that. McLemore builds a world where roses grow from a girl’s wrist as a part of her that can bleed when destroyed. The symbolism is at times painful. And at other times transcendent. This is not to say that there weren’t times when I was reading this where I wasn’t confused or even frustrated with the poetic imagery and language. There were. But it all fit together so well, and served the larger purpose of the novel. It worked. So, even if you find yourself frustrated, I found it worth it.
This book was gorgeous. I am bummed it didn’t make it to the short list for the National Book Award, because it definitely deserved to be there. Read it all, including the dedication and author’s note. Every word matters.