Review: Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

wild swansIf there’s one thing I really like reading about, it’s dysfunctional families. If those dysfunctional families include crazy women, dark secrets and lots of d00r-slamming, I start getting really excited. When all the crazy women, dark secrets and door-slamming lead to previously-unknown siblings and people shouting at each other in coffee houses, I basically melt into a pool of bookwormish delight. Oh, Wild Swans, you had me from “hello.”

Jessica Spotswood’s novel is about Ivy, the youngest in a long line of troubled female artists, abandoned by her mother as an infant and raised by her essentially nice but success-fuelled grandfather. Ivy has a lovely summer planned, full of being average at stuff, not being bullied into writing poems and probably some swimming, but that’s all ruined when the afore-mentioned abandoning mother returns, with – hold the front page! – two new sisters for Ivy to deal with. The struggle is real.

The Milbourn legacy goes back four generations. Folks were just starting to drive over from Baltimore and Washington, DC to buy my great-great-grandmother’s portraits when she tried outracing a train in her new roadster. It stalled on the tracks and she and her two youngest were killed instantly. My great-grandmother Dorothea survived and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her love poems – but she was murdered by the woman whose husband she’d been sleeping with for inspiration. Grandmother painted famous, haunting landscapes of the Bay, but the year before I was born, she walked out the back door and down to the water and drowned herself.

This is just on the first page, so we’re instantly thrust into the dramatic life of the Milbourn women; I was completely fascinated with all of this and I loved learning more about it as the novel went on. In some ways, I’d have preferred a sweeping history of the family, with several hundred pages devoted to each of these extraordinary women. Which isn’t to say that Ivy’s story isn’t interesting; understandably, being a ‘Milbourn girl’ in the town where all this happened leads to immense pressure, gossip and general interference, and it’s clear that Ivy struggles to copy with all this. Ivy is quite nondescript, but almost purposefully so; she has carved out a niche for being nearly the best at things, as well as being extremely nice. When her (frankly horrific) mother returns fifteen years after leaving Ivy, it’s clear who the real grown-up is and there’s something quite tragic about that; while awful Erica drinks and waves a cigarette around, tutting every time her middle daughter eats anything, Ivy is forced to pick up the pieces. She’s not just nice; she’s a genuinely good person.

Obviously there’s romance, and the vague semblance of a love triangle, but these were the least interesting aspects for me; I wanted more about the Milbourn women, but I suppose that would have made this an adult rather than YA novel. Ivy’s grandfather is an interesting character and Spotswood does a great job of showing how a person can make the wrong decisions for the right reasons, being inadvertently cruel under the guise of doing their best. All the main characters are compelling; Iz and Gracie, Ivy’s sisters, are both interesting and very rarely annoying. I recently read Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming, which also focused on generations of women in one family, and, as with that book, I loved how Wild Swans made the most of having so many fascinating women.

Wild Swans is very much a slow-burning study of family relationships, with not a huge amount of actual events, but this works perfectly in conveying the complexity of the Milbourn family. Spotswood creates engaging characters who the reader can care about, even when they’re being awful (or, perhaps, human).

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