I was delighted to see that Jojo Moyes has gone back to writing things outside of her Will and Louisa trilogy, so when I saw The Giver of Stars was on NetGalley, I knew I had to request it. It took a while, but eventually my request was approved (only two weeks before publication day!) and so shortly after, I dived into Depression-era Kentucky with naive newlywed Alice Van Cleve, to explore the mountains and the WPA Packhorse Library. Moyes is on fine form in this sweeping narrative, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes
Set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their unforgettable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond, from the author of Me Before You and The Peacock Emporium
When Alice Wright agrees to marry handsome American Bennett Van Cleve and leave behind her stifling life in England for a new adventure in Kentucky, she’s soon disenchanted by her newlywed status and overbearing father-in-law, owner of the local coal mine. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.
The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, the smart-talking, self-sufficient daughter of a notorious local criminal, a woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. Alice finds Margery as bracing and courageous as anyone she’s ever met–and comes to rely on her, especially as her marriage starts to fail.
They will be joined by three diverse women and become known as the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky.
What happens to these women–and to the men they love–becomes a classic drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. Though they face all kinds of dangers–from moonshiners to snakes, from mountains to floods–and social disapproval to boot. But they believe deeply in their work bringing books to people who had never had any, expanding horizons and arming them with facts that will change their lives.
Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, the storytelling itself here is enthralling–the pages fly, and the book is unparalleled in its scope and its epic breadth. Funny, heartbreaking, and rewarding, it is a rich novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.
I thoroughly enjoyed this sweeping story about Alice and Margery, the men they married and loved, and their experience as packhorse librarians. Backed up by a cast of other librarians and local characters, the blurb of this book says it’s the story of five women, but it’s definitely not. It’s the story of two. That’s not a criticism, by any means, and the female friendships which develop between the packhorse librarians is beautifully drawn. It’s just that there are more than five women involved in the library, and those five mentioned in the blurb are no more or less developed than several other characters.
Alice and Margery carry the story, driving the plot, and carrying the reader along with them. And to suggest that the book is equally about Beth, Sophia, and Izzy does an injustice to the structure of the book. That’s not to say that their stories aren’t compelling – they are, and all three characters are hugely interesting, developed, and add depth to a story which otherwise is very white and able-bodied. But I don’t see that Izzy’s story is any more compelling or developed than, say, Kathleen Bligh’s. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the book. I actually love how developed the stories of the secondary characters are, and think Kathleen’s story is beautifully done.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book. Alice is a compelling main character, and Margery is tough, take no nonsense, and also vulnerable, and sweet, and fragile in unexpected ways. Alice’s relationship with her husband Bennett, who swept her off her feet and whisked her away to Kentucky, is soured by the looming presence of his father, Mr Van Cleve, whose rigid ideals and disapproving countenance overhang the book as a whole.
Alice and Margery join and run the WPA Packhorse library, bringing them freedom and interaction as they deliver books, magazines, and pamphlets around the mountains and residences of rural Kentucky. The growing love Alice has for her surroundings is contrasted sharply against the cold, withdrawn nature of her marriage, and Alice’s character developing as she becomes the fully realised woman she evolves into at the end of the book. To see her grow was a thoroughly enjoyable journey – mostly on horseback – and one that I would happily recommend.
I did have a few disappointments or quibbles with the book – Sven, Margery’s partner, felt underdeveloped at times, occasionally nothing more than a generic male presence to bounce off Margery. And Alice’s acceptance of Margery’s unconventional lifestyle seemed too hurried to really countenance. There was some – but not a lot – exploration of racial tensions in the mines and the towns, but it was brushed off without much thought, which was somewhat disappointing. Alice’s actions in the final pages, once she reads the booklet, were surprising, and honestly, I thought her religious beliefs weren’t wonderfully portrayed, or developed, especially as her behaviour throughout the book does gradually throw off the confines of religion. These were relatively minor, though.
Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, a tour de force of female friendship and women forging new paths for themselves in a time when to do so was not easy. Two vibrant main characters sparkle on the page and their interactions and intertwined lives are a joy to read. The historical background of the novel feels natural and unforced, and highlights an initiative that I was previously entirely unaware of. I gobbled this book up, enjoying every delectable page, and will be recommending it around with joyful abandon.