Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Wild Swans

Peg Kerr
Completed 6/6/2020, Reviewed 6/7/2020
5 stars

This was a very difficult book to read, not because of the writing, but because of the subject matter.  It deals with the AIDS epidemic on a very personal level.  It juxtaposes a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Wild Swans” with a tale about a gay young man, kicked out by his family, and coming out in New York City in the early ‘80s.  Having come out myself at about the same time, I lived through this period.  Reading a book or seeing a film about it is very hard for me and brings up a lot of anger, terrible sadness, and survivor’s guilt.  Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this book, with the way it told the two stories.  Both stories left me emotionally devastated, but immensely satisfied as well.  It was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award and won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2000.

This first story takes place in the late 1600s.  Eliza is the daughter of an earl.  Her stepmother has turned her eleven brothers into swans and gets Eliza banished from court.  She and her brothers go to the New World where she works on breaking the curse that keeps her brothers as swans by day and humans by night.  In alternating chapters, we encounter Elias, a gay eighteen-year-old, who has been abandoned by his family.  He goes to New York where he lives on the streets.  There, he meets Sean who takes him in, helps him get a job, and shows him gay life in the big city.  Elias falls for Sean.  But as their relationship develops, their friends start dying of strange cancers and infections. 

The character development is phenomenal.  I could identify and empathize with Eliza and Elias.  Elias, of course, was easy, having been only a few years older than him in the early ‘80s.  Eliza, on the other hand, was easy because Kerr’s writing is so good.  I felt transported back to 17th century England and later Colonial Massachusetts.  The world building was great.  I haven’t read Hans Christian Anderson’s version of the fairy tale, so I don’t know how much Kerr elaborated on it, but I felt that the world was rich and realistic.  I was also impressed that the other major and minor characters were just as well rounded.  Nobody felt like a cardboard cutout of a character.  Even the evil stepmother felt more three dimensional than most nemeses. 

Reflecting on the story of Elias, his coming out, and his relationship with Sean in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is difficult for me.  It brings up all sorts of emotions that I don’t necessarily want to face or feel.  I was glad the book dealt with it in a very matter-of-fact way.  It’s easy for a book to get maudlin when everyone around you is getting sick and dying.  But I felt it wasn’t maudlin at all.   Yet, it still had an emotional punch.  I loved Elias and Sean, even though they were both flawed, Elias in his naivete and Sean in his more cynical nature.  So it is not an easy romantic story.  Their relationship grew over time and wasn’t immune to rough spots.   

My only criticism of the book was how the two stories came together in the end.  It was simultaneously beautiful and a little forced.   I found myself (not so successfully) holding back the tears with both narratives, but in between my sobs thinking “Huh?”  Of course, it’s the ending, so going into detail would be a spoiler.

I give this book five stars out of five.  Yeah, I cried.  I read this book quickly because as it unfolded, I knew it would get harder and harder to read.  The prose was lovely and encouraged my reading speed.  I didn’t feel I missed out on anything by reading too quickly, except I probably would have cried earlier in the book if I had allowed myself to read more slowly. 

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