It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.
It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.
But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.
Do you know how badly I wanted to love this book? No, I didn’t just want to love this book— I expected to love this book. It sounded like Sawkill Girls-meets-Annihilation, which it is. It’s just that it takes the aspects of those books that makes them great and butchers them. This is a book filled with unlikable characters, a passionless romance, and more questions than answers. It is, in short, the store brand version of much better books. And the store only has diet.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m too critical of YA books. Perhaps the reason the story doesn’t work well is simply because it’s below my reading level. But then I remember the fantastic YA stories I’ve read and realize that’s BS. I can tell when the problem is me and this isn’t one of those times.
For starters, the characters are flat as hell. Even worse, they’re pretty unlikable. Well, Hetty is. I don’t know enough about Reese to be able to tell either way. Hetty is hypocritical, unempathetic, and painfully single-minded. If the narrative portrayed her as morally gray, this would be fine. But it insists she is a hero and always in the right. The narrative lacks the awareness that its protagonist is kind of a shitty person.
Reese would be interesting if the reader were able to get to know her. Instead, her metaphorical mask is used to hide her from the characters and the reader. We know she loves her dad and has a crush on Hetty. She’s prickly and harsh with no particular reason as to why.
Byatt is the only character I enjoyed reading about because she is an explicitly flawed character. She knows her morals are corrupt and that’s what makes her interesting. I was never more hooked on the story than when I was reading from her POV.
The rest of the characters are hardly relevant, there just to flesh out the background. The two that are Secretly Evil™ are condemned for doing what Hetty does mere pages later. Why are the standards different? Because Hetty is the protagonist, of course!
The romance is just sad to read. Hetty and Reese have absolutely no chemistry. The reader has no idea why these two like each other, only that they do. Even though they don’t treat each other very well. I felt a little soft for them a few times, but only because I was so happy to see a F/F romance. In all honesty, the book could’ve gone without the romance and been the exact same story.
As the story goes on, more and more things about the Tox and Raxter Island are revealed. The problem is they just bring up more questions— and not in a good way. These revelations cause the story to make even less sense. The way the Tox spreads and what it is are contradictory. The actions of the military and doctors make no sense. Things are just kind of placed in places so Hetty can discover something. Nothing about the functionality of this world adds up.
And I’m not saying there should be clear-cut answers for everything. Annihilation works really well by answering some questions and leaving others unanswered. The balance of which mysteries are solved and which aren’t really help build the creepy atmosphere of the story. The fact that Power aims to answer everything comes at a detriment to her story.
It also doesn’t make sense when you consider how open-ended the conclusion is. I usually like open endings, but this one is on a whole other level. The novel kind of just… ends. I don’t know if Power has a sequel planned, but the story almost requires one now. I wouldn’t read it, but fans of the Wilder Girls deserve one.
Despite all my issues, there were things I liked about this book. I like how the Tox mutates the girls and isn’t a one-time issue. It has real, tangible, bizarre consequences. I also like how it mutates everything else. The entire island is changed by the Tox. It’s twisted and morbid and absolutely fantastic.
And, however disappointing the execution is, I like that this story has a F/F romance. I’m always going to consider that a plus. I wish this romance were better developed, but I’ll still take it. Lesbians can and will take over YA.
Wilder Girls was a huge letdown for me, perhaps one of my most disappointing reads of the year. Everything about this book checked off all my boxes, it just doesn’t execute them well. Wilder Girls isn’t an awful debut by any means, just mediocre. Perhaps Rory Power should’ve stuck to screenwriting because I’m not sure novel writing is her forte.
Then again, Wilder Girls has hit every best-seller list, so maybe I’m just wildly incorrect.