on February 8, 2004
Two alternating narratives, one retelling the folktale The Wild Swans as if in the 17th century, and one about a young gay man in the early 1980's; one has a happy ending, and one is tragic.
It seems possible to me that the characters in the 20th century plotline are meant to be reincarnations of those in the earlier one -- based on name similarities and a statement made by one minor character. But if that's the case, some events are certainly left unexplained.
The sentence-level writing is painfully clunky at times, and overall the 20th century plot is better developed and more believable than the 17th, which doesn't seem to me to capture the necessary magic. Kerr skillfully portrays the tragedy of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In general her characterization is competent.
In the first part of the book I was thinking "this would be great for teaching young adults about tolerance, but the universe is so benevolent it's not even believable." Obviously, it doesn't stay that way. In fact, the end of the 20th century plotline is so tragic that it has stayed with me in haunting fashion. It seems clear that Elias hasn't done anything wrong, but nevertheless he's doomed, and worst of all, the swans fly away from him in his dream: he is not only physically but thematically cursed. I'm not sure I understood what the author was trying to convey, but I certainly found the conclusion emotionally effective.
on October 20, 2003
Both stories were well-written but I would have enjoyed them better as separate stories. Having said that I would never have bothered to read Elias' story if that happened - and Elias' story is more sensitively written. You can see him growing and can truly experience his emotions. You don't feel the same for Eliza, though the male characters - William and Jonathan - are drawn much better.
I knew there would be two threads from the start, but expected them to converge rather than run parallel. There were tantalising echoes of one story in the other, in the choice of people's names and their attitudes, but those echoes did nothing to actually further either plot, and could have been omitted. The lamest part was the way the 11 brothers were woven into the AIDS story. They didn't impinge on Elias' life so it wouldn't have mattered if they hadn't been there.
Read this book on the assumption that there are 2 separate stories, and you will enjoy it. Be warned that Elias' story doesn't have a happy ending, though it has closure.
Nothing is ever said of what happens to the Countess, who should be justly punished, or for that matter what happens to Benjamin with his wing (does he get his arm back at night?). A sequel might be in order here.
on September 5, 2003
I was given this book by a friend who didn't really care for it, and I can see why--her taste runs more towards high fantasy, Robert Jordan and the like, and she really enjoyed Daughter of the Forest, which I out down after three chapters, never to pick up again. So naturally, I opened this book and devoured it in a sitting, and sobbed incoherently at my roommate when I was done.
There are still places where I don't really see how the stories tied together, and yes, I was more engaged at various points with one story than the other. But I think to say that this book would be improved by surgical separation is to miss the point. Yes, most readers already know the fairytale that is at the heart of Eliza's story. Yes, Elias' story, because we don't already know where it's going, can seem more engaging. But the power of this novel lies in between its stories, in the interface between the mythical and the mundane and the place where the happily-ever-after of the fairytale meets the idea of death as the ultimate act of looking forward. Both are stories about coming to peace through hardship and suffering, though the endings Elias and Eliza come to may be different. The story speaks to the power of hope that our myths give us, and that, I think, is where its real success lies.
on August 27, 2003
I picked up this novel on recommendation from a friend. I wasn't sure what to expect at all, but ultimately I'm so glad that I read it.
Like a number of other reviewers, I feel that the story concerning Elias is more engaging than Eliza's story. Don't get me wrong, Eliza's story was interesting and well-written, but I knew the fairy tale that this book is based upon and could figure out the ending. Ms. Kerr does a fabulous job of presenting the same sort of story in two different contexts with two different endings. The reader is sure that Eliza will get her happy ending. Today especially, readers know that Elias and his "brothers" cannot reach the same sort of resolution.
I liked the paralells between the two stories a great deal. There is a bit in the very last chapter that ties the two tales together in a very nice way...I won't reveal it, because I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone.
This book opened my eyes to thoughts and people that I hadn't considered before. The "modern" side of the story literally broke my heart. Again, I don't want to spoil the ending, but suffice to say that I was at my job when I finished reading this, and I cried enough that I had to close my shop for ten minutes while I got myself back together enough to face the public. I have read very few books that have moved me and changed my world as much as this one did. I have recommended it to most of my friends, and now I urge anybody who has stopped to read this review to pick up a copy of your own.
on July 30, 2003
I'll admit that I was biased when I first picked up this book. I was expecting a story similar to Daughter of the Forest. Unfortunately, this work wasn't nearly in the same class. There was no real depth or detail to any of the characters except for Elias. I really cared for his plight and that of his lover. It was easy to see where the story was going, but it was still enjoyable getting there. Elias' story was so much more engaging than that of Eliza and her brothers. The Wild Swans would have been a much better book if Eliza's whole storyline was removed and instead the book focused on Elias and the devestating effects of AIDs on the gay population. Eliza's section was also predictable from start to finish though not nearly as engaging. Her twelve brothers existed solely to further the plot (after all the tale requires the heroine's brothers to be turned into swans). The only attempt to show how her brothers feel about the curse they're under is clumsily handled in a few sentences (basically her youngest brother says "It's alright since I can't remember it being any other way, but it's probably hard on the others"). None of the other characters were much better: there was the handsome man who obviously must fall in love with her at first sight, the gay minister whose jealousy causes him to condemn Eliza, the kind-hearted woman who shelters her, etc. There's no real motivation for her to sacrifice herself for brothers she barely even knows, and miraculously her task of making twelve shirts out of stinging nettles by hand is easily accomplished in just a few paragraphs. I suggest reading Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest for a much better and more in-depth retelling of the seven swans fairy tale. If however, you do decide to read The Wild Swans make sure you don't make the mistake of reading DotF first.
on September 23, 2002
I would have given it five stars. Although, ironically, had I known in advance that half of the book was devoted to the relationship of a gay male couple, I doubt I would have purchased the book, since I was looking for a fantasy/romance.
Still, Sean and Elias' half of this book is the only one that came alive to me. As two gay men in NYC at the dawn of the AIDS era, watching their friends and acquaintances all becoming struck down by what then was known as "gay cancer," it was tragically obvious what their fates must be. And yet, Kerr makes them so very real that you read on until the bitter end because, just as if they were your friends in real life, you simply have to "be there" for them when they draw their last breaths.
As I watched Sean befriend the younger Elias and help him come to terms with his homosexuality, while denying his own mortality (a denial which leads to the ultimate tragic consequence for both Sean and Elias), I saw something that felt so human and so real, that I almost felt like a voyeur. The scenes where Sean and Elias wordlessly "bond" in the face of this realization are, quite simply, breathtaking.
By contrast, the "Eliza" (of the many swan-brothers) half of the book seemed composed of far too many disparate elements. Eliza herself turned out to be that creature in fantasy fiction I dislike most - a heroine who is just too good and too beautiful to be true. Totally undeveloped as a character, passive, yet impossibly noble and, ultimately for me, incredibly dull. The attempt to cobble Eliza's story to the New England witchcraft trials and the repressed sexuality theme of The Scarlett Letter (albeit in this book the repression is a homosexual one) seemed stale and predictable. I just never cared what happened to her, or her umpteen interchangeable brothers (too bad when Kerr was doing the adapting she didn't whittle their number down somewhat, although I doubt it would have made much difference).
The connective-tissue swan imagery was nice and all that, but any competent author can establish a mood for a book with that kind of thing, and that's not what impresses me when I read a book. More than that, I want characters who make me feel something, whose fates I truly care about, and I want to feel uplifted when when their story is done.
Sean and Elias did that for me, in a milieu with which I'm not at all familiar. I thought they had a story worth telling and Peg Kerr told it well. But I felt Eliza's story has been told too many times before and while this version did add some new elements, those elements simply added to the PLOT. They didn't add to the STORY.
on June 21, 2000
I purchased this book solely because of the author. After having read Emerald House Rising, and finding it breath taking, I was willing to give anything by Peg Kerr a chance. I was not disappointed. I picked up the book one morning and finished the following evening, the whole time loathing each interval where I had to put it down, as it was completely captivating. The Wild Swans entails two parallel plots that do not seem entirely parallel until you reach the end. The two tales are so different that it is an astounding feat of the author to have tied them together so perfectly. Ultimately each left the imprint that family is precious, and must be fought for despite persecution, sought for despite apparent disappearance If not for the author, I never would have chosen to read this book, as it is in no way related to the normal choices of my reading. Yet I found it to be fascinating, as well as eye opening. The characters are well developed and presented, consistently conveying emotion in both action and speech. Both story lines are well thought out and flowing, each making you desire to keep turning pages. Altogether an enchanting, not to mention horizon broadening, read.
on June 9, 2000
I started this book with high expectations: after all, the sfsite had heralded this as one of the best works of the past year. Guess in future I'll have to approach their recommendations with greater caution. After a hundred pages, I put the book down--something I rarely do--having decided it left little to offer.
This is two stories that parallel each other as one. Unfortunately, they are rather rigidly separated in alternating episodes, each chapter stiffly moving back and forth between one story and the other. While someone applauded the difficulty of this maneuver, it seems a rather conventional plot device over the past few years, a number of authors I can think of--Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Sara Douglass, Steven Erikson, to name a few--interweaving multiple plots with diverse perspective in order to enrich their narratives. Granted, the tales here are separated by almost three hundred years, and on the surface appear to be dealing with very different themes and characters, so I suppose a claim could be made as to the difficulty in successfully intermingling two distinctive narratives, if the manner of organizing them were not so artificial and unyeilding. Bouncing unerringly back and forth between stories seems hardly inventive, and the author's unfailing adherence to the practice becomes predictable and tiresome.
The two individual main characters of these tales--Elias, a young gay man striving to come to terms with his identity in the New York City of the early 80's, and Eliza Grey, a fosterling returning to nobility in 1689 England--seem familiar and typecast. The former is facing all the predictable hurdles already suggested in Hollywood and other fictional portrayals of young gay men abandoned to the street, his sensitivity established between alternating tears, insecurity and blushing, who, upon announcing his sexual identity (a school mate snitches), is thrown out of the house by his "East Coast Brahmin" father, a deacon of the church, who with typical originality casts him out with the curse "You can go live with all the rest of the faggots. Live in a cesspool...And when you die, you can burn in hell forever." He is befriended by an older, wiser, senstive--and need I say also gay--man who sings beautifully on his guitar before the subway, and to whom Elias immediately forms an infatuation. Seem familiar? Know where it's going?
Eliza, on the otherhand, is straight out of any number of 19th century English novels, be it Austen or Dickens. Given into fosterage by her father, a Count, shortly after the death of her mother, she is raised by a kind farmwife, only to be abruptly returned to her family's estate as she approaches the age of marriage. Her mother has been replaced by an evil and sorcerous step-mother, who conforms to that much maligned parental stereotype with all the casting of the Brothers Grimm or Walt Disney in "Snow White. There appears little deviation from a well-worn path.
Finally, it is not long before various conventional plot contrivances begin to appear. Upon Eliza's arrival at her family estate, her evil step-mother immediately takes her down to where she keeps her herbs and potions and things. Coincidentally, unaware of her step-mother's intentions, Eliza picks up a sprig of juniper, which it is announced, is a protection against evil and spells. Unsurprisingly, she's gonna need it, as her step-mother mixes a batch of herbs that she throws into Eliza's face, causing Eliza to fall into a dull and submissive stupor. Not to worry, though, the sprig of juniper saves the day.
While I realize that I am going against the grain of what seems to be common opinion on these pages, I cannot help but find the first hundred pages of this book too obvious, simplistically plotted and predictable. Having read the first chapters, why read further? This work is loosely based upon the old Celtic legend of the swans (despite attribution elsewhere to Hans Christian Anderson, evidence of cultural borrowing), more closely and successfully rendered recently by Juliet Marillier. If you are interested in reading a retelling of this tale I would direct you there: "Daughter of the Forest" is far more satisfying tale. Unfortunately, despite evidence that Ms. Kerr knows how to compose a sentence and a paragraph, the plot line of her story far too stale to generate much interest. While the concept has potential, and the style of writing cleanly rendered, based upon the execution I may have been overly generous in granting it three stars.
on January 31, 2000
Not-quite-parallel, but related stories set 300 years apart, tell the stories of two young people who may or may not be related by blood but are definitely related by misfortune. "The Wild Swans" is partly a reworking of Hans Christian Anderson's fairytale about a girl who must save her brothers from a spell which has turned them into swans, and partly a tale of a young man rejected by his family because he's gay. It's a remarkably apt connection to have made because the message of the AIDS activists - Silence = Death - is so important to both stories. There are many points at which the stories can and do meet, but one of the most elegant is the idea of the weaving of the nettles (for which, substitute grief and memory) into the shirts (read the AIDS quilt) which will release the swan-men from their enchantment (a symbolic gesture of solidarity and support for AIDS victims and AIDS research.) Without beating her readers over the head with a message, Kerr manages to express all the most important ideas and emotions in a graceful narrative that has moments of remarkable beauty. Highly recommended.
on May 4, 1999
This novel is actually two stories woven together by images and thematic inferences rather than plot. Both stories are told in very spare, simple prose (though one feels distinctly more "modern") and I was intellectually engaged and certainly emotionally provoked throughout. I read the last hundred pages in one sitting, unable to tear myself from what felt like twice the attraction. It has been a long time since I have cried at the end of a book and although this alone cannot recommend your time, it is indicative of how much I grew to care about the characters and the troubling patterns of hate and intolerance throughout our history. I can see where critics would fault the not always subtle symbolism that connects each story, but the traditional purpose of stories like this Hans Christian Andersen's retelling was to warn, teach and ultimately transcend evil and danger. I think that Kerr captures and holds many universal and heartbreaking struggles within her fairy tale "net." More importantly, she will reach many people who might never have read one or the other story alone but when juxiposed with the more familiar, will open their heart in a whole new way. I was swept away and truly apreaciated the ride.