Book Club Review: “This Poison Heart”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and reimagings.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “This Poison Heart” by Kalynn Bayron

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, June 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Retelling/Reimagining: “The Secret Garden”

Book Description: Briseis has a gift: she can grow plants from tiny seeds to rich blooms with a single touch.

When Briseis’s aunt dies and wills her a dilapidated estate in rural New York, Bri and her parents decide to leave Brooklyn behind for the summer. Hopefully there, surrounded by plants and flowers, Bri will finally learn to control her gift. But their new home is sinister in ways they could never have imagined–it comes with a specific set of instructions, an old-school apothecary, and a walled garden filled with the deadliest botanicals in the world that can only be entered by those who share Bri’s unique family lineage.

When strangers begin to arrive on their doorstep, asking for tinctures and elixirs, Bri learns she has a surprising talent for creating them. One of the visitors is Marie, a mysterious young woman who Bri befriends, only to find that Marie is keeping dark secrets about the history of the estate and its surrounding community. There is more to Bri’s sudden inheritance than she could have imagined, and she is determined to uncover it . . . until a nefarious group comes after her in search of a rare and dangerous immortality elixir. Up against a centuries-old curse and the deadliest plant on earth, Bri must harness her gift to protect herself and her family.

From the bestselling author of Cinderella Is Dead comes another inspiring and deeply compelling story about a young woman with the power to conquer the dark forces descending around her.

Kate’s Thoughts

When we decided on reimaginings/retellings for our Book Club theme for this new cycle, I jumped into a number of lists trying to figure out what I was going to choose. I wanted to avoid titles that people may have already read, and I wanted to try and find one that would be a more modern take on a classic that was steeped in Western literature. So when I stumbled upon “This Poison Heart” by Kalynn Bayron and that it involved a Black teenage girl with Poison Ivy-esque powers that was based on “The Secret Garden” I was very intrigued. I hadn’t read the book in its entirety, but I was obsessed with the early 90s movie and thought that this was a fun choice. And while it absolutely has some good moments and fun aspects to it, I think that I was let down a bit by this retelling.

First I will talk about the good! I love the concept of a teenage girl who has magical powers that make plants drawn to her, and make her immune to poisonous plants while she can make plants thrive. I really enjoyed the ways that Briseis has to grapple with these powers, and how this kind of magical reality could cause serious problems (what with trees uprooting around you trying to get closer to her and how these issues could affect relationships). I also enjoyed that, when Greek mythology connections start to come through, that Bayron wants to re-examine the character of Medea, the villainous witch that killed her children to get back at her husband Jason. I really love it when there are new takes on old myths like that, especially ones that deconstruct evil women and give them more depth, complexity, and tragedy in their own right. But that kind of leads up to my big issue with this book being called a “Secret Garden” retelling. It doesn’t really feel like that, outside of a mysterious garden on a newly inherited estate. The other themes didn’t feel present, and it did shift a bit more towards Greek Mythology as the story went on. I just think that it takes more than a mysterious garden to be a retelling of the story (that said, I LOVE poison gardens so that was pretty cool).

So while I did like certain parts of “This Poison Heart”, as a retelling it wasn’t as successful as I would have liked it to be. As a fantasy YA novel without that connection it works just fine.

Serena’s Thoughts

I second all of Kate’s thoughts! I, too, really loved the 90s version of “The Secret Garden” and very much enjoyed the book, as well. So I definitely went in to this re-telling with a lot expectations, not only about the themes that would be covered (loneliness, found family, etc.) but also which characters would show up and how they would be reinterpreted. I’ve got to say, by the time I realized there was no Colin equivalent, I was getting pretty bummed.

As Kate said, about halfway through the book the story takes a massive swerve into Greek mythology. I’m on the record as loving “Circe,” so I definitely don’t have anything against this theme. It was more the fact that I had been sold on one story (one I really hadn’t seen before, a retelling of “The Secret Garden”) and ended up reading a very different one (a Greek mythology story, which, frankly, is getting a bit played out recently.)

The characters were also a mixed bag for me. I really liked Briseis herself, and I thought the ways that her plant powers affected her life were interesting and creative. I also really liked that her moms played very active roles in the story, rather than just mysteriously disappearing as is so often the case in YA fiction. But other than that, I struggled. For one thing, I didn’t like the love interest. The romance ticked off two of my pet peeves: one for instalove and two for semi-creepy age discrepancies. Look, we can’t sit here on a high horse and give Edward Cullen all of this flack for being so much older than Bella and then let this romance off the hook just because is f/f. At least, I can’t.

Overall, I didn’t love this book. The first half of it I thought was pretty intriguing and was setting up an interesting story. But halfway through it takes a massive swerve, and I spent the rest of the book dreaming of what could have been.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Briseis’s powers and I liked the reinterpretation of a Greek mythology villainess, but this didn’t really feel like a “Secret Garden” retelling.

Serena’s Rating 6: While it had a few redeeming qualities, especially in the first half, I could never get beyond the fact that I’d been sold one thing and was reading something completely different.

Book Club Questions:

  1. How familiar are you with “The Secret Garden”? Did you feel like this was a successful reimagining?
  2. What were your thoughts on the Greek Mythology elements of the story?
  3. Did you like the magical aspects of the story? Did you feel like the magical systems were well thought out?
  4. What did you think of Rhinebeck as a small town setting?
  5. Did any characters stand out to you in particular?
  6. Do you think you will continue on in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“This Poison Heart” is included on the Goodreads lists “Popsugar 2023 #14: A Modern Retelling of a Classic”, and “Alex’s Sapphic Masterlist”.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Witch’s Heart” by Genevieve Gornichec

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