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Book: “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” by Liz Michalski
Publishing Info: Dutton Books, May 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: eARC from the publisher!
Book Description: Life is looking up for Holly Darling, granddaughter of Wendy–yes, that Wendy. She’s running a successful skincare company; her son, Jack, is happy and healthy; and the tragedy of her past is well behind her . . . until she gets a call that her daughter, Eden, who has been in a coma for nearly a decade, has gone missing from the estate where she’s been long tucked away. And, worst of all, Holly knows who must be responsible: Peter Pan, who is not only very real, but more dangerous than anyone could imagine.
Eden’s disappearance is a disaster for more reasons than one. She has a rare condition that causes her to age rapidly–ironic, considering her father is the boy who will never grow up–which also makes her blood incredibly valuable. It’s a secret that Holly is desperate to protect, especially from Eden’s half-brother, Jack, who knows nothing about his sister or the crucial role she plays in his life. Holly has no one to turn to–her mother is the only other person in the world who knows that Peter is more than a story, but she refuses to accept that he is not the hero she’s always imagined. Desperate, Holly enlists the help of Christopher Cooke, a notorious ex-soldier, in the hopes of rescuing Eden before it’s too late . . . or she may lose both her children.
Review: There are a few fairytales (for lack of a better word, I guess) that are particularly hard to re-tell. In my opinion, “Peter Pan” is notorious for this. Not only is the original very much of its time with a plethora of modern pitfalls for a contemporary adaptation, but the entire situation is bizarre. How much of a child is Peter really, given his long life? Is it kidnapping, what happens to the Darling children? How does one balance the whimsy of the entire situation with a story grounded in real emotion and energy? In my experience, it seems that the more successful an adaptation is the more it has deviated from the original story. All of this to say, while I’m always excited to check out a new version of the story, it’s definitely one of those tales that I go into with the quite a bit of wariness.
Secrets linger in Holly’s past, though she has become an expert at hiding this fact. And these are more than the ordinary familial secrets. For what many think is just a story, Holly knows as a pernicious but very real part of her own family history: that is, Peter Pan. And when her daughter, Eden, who has long existed in a comatose state suddenly disappears, this shadow-ridden past comes roaring back into Holly’s life. Desperate for help, Holly turns to an ex-soldier. But will it be enough to confront the magical forces aligned against them?
While this book wasn’t quite the smash hit that I was hoping it would be, there were still quite a number of things going for it. For one, I really liked the generational aspect of the story. I’ve read a number of books about Wendy herself or her daughter, Jane. But instead of focusing on these characters, the author chose to remove the story down another step, focusing on Holly, the granddaughter of Wendy. We then even go a step further down the family line with the inclusion of Eden and Jack, Holly’s children and Wendy’s great-grandchildren. Through this focus, we truly see the effect of a character like Peter who never ages but is a persistent presence in one family’s life. Each woman has had a different experience of him. Indeed, part of the focus of the story is reconciling these various experiences with the truth of who he is.
This isn’t the first dark!Peter story I’ve com across. Indeed, the once-popular TV show “Once Upon a Time” is partly best-know for its creepy take on Peter (or perhaps its very attractive take on Hook, who knows?!). So this wasn’t unique ground solely found in this book. But I will say it was much, much darker than I was expecting. Perhaps even too dark for me. I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with some of the themes at the heart of the story, but I do think the author handled them well. Mostly, if you love Peter Pan, be prepared to kill your lovelies, because there’s nothing redeemable about this character. For as bad as he is, I do wish we actually got to see a bit more of him. In some ways, his villainy was a bit too easily hand-waved away as “he’s just always been bad.” Instead, it might have been a more interesting take to see how a character that might have been morally ambivalent originally could be corrupted by the nature of Neverland and this existence.
I did struggle a bit with the pacing of the story. It starts out well enough, but I felt like things began to drag a bit by the middle of the tale. Part of this was my own lack of real connection to Holly. I’m not sure what exactly the problem was, but I never felt fully invested in her arch. When the action and the mystery were at the forefront, I sped along. But when the story slowed for some of the character moments (usually my bread and butter), I found myself having a harder time focusing. I also wasn’t super invested in the romance, though, again, there was nothing obviously wrong here.
This was definitely an interesting retelling of “Peter Pan.” It’s definitely on the darker side in some ways, but I think the decision to focus on Peter’s impact on several generations of women in one family was very interesting. Fans of the original (and those not too attached to Peter himself!) will likely enjoy this one.
Rating 7: A bit lacking on the character front, but an interesting reimaging of the effects that Peter Pan would have on a generation of women whose lives become entangled with the magic of Neverland.
“Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” is on this Goodreads lists: Peter Pan Retellings.