The 2018 novel, Where The Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for 20 non-consecutive weeks and was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club. When I posted it on my Instagram story as my current reading project, I received numerous positive comments from friends, so I was quite excited. And in the beginning, I really was.
The story oscillates between two timelines in North Carolina. In the first timeline, we are introduced to Catherine “Kya” Clark, a little girl living in a marsh shack with her four older siblings, her beloved mother, and her abusive, alcoholic father in the early 1950s. One by one, they all leave and this young child is forced to survive alone. She becomes highly suspicious of other people and most comfortable surrounded by seagulls and sand crabs. Her sole human friend is Jumpin’, an African American man that runs a gas station. He and his wife offer Kya help when the rest of the town scorns her as “swamp trash”.
The second timeline occurs in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Chase Andrews, a handsome womanizer from a wealthy family, and formerly the local high school football star, is found dead beneath a fire tower under suspicious circumstances. The town’s sheriff investigates. Slowly, but surely, these two timelines converge.
As Kya grows older, a local boy named Tate a few years older somehow breaks down her barrier and teaches her to read. They fall in love but then he leaves for college, an option that not possible for Kya. This is where things began to turn for me.
Up until this point, the writing in the first part of the book was very strong. Owens potently conjures the shack in the marsh, Kya barefoot in her dirty overalls hiding from her father, her mother walking away forever, unsteadily in her fake crocodile boots. I could smell the grits cooking in the dingy kitchen. I felt the pangs of abandonment and the desperation young Kya felt in trying to find her next meal. I was very excited about this book.
But as soon as Tate leaves for college and betrays his promise to return to her, I became leery. Kya subsequently begins a tumultuous affair with Chase that ends in another abandonment. All the while, she becomes a published author and scholar despite having attended school for one day, she and Tate reconnect, there’s a murder trial with predictable results, and a lot of invasive, pretentious poetic insertions.
This novel started as a deep, visceral story of loss and survival and fizzled out into a predictable Nicholas Sparks trope. Kya, a fiercely independent woman becomes the misunderstood heroine struggling with two archetypal romantic partners. This diminished and contradicted her character. This is a woman who lived by herself in the marsh; loneliness aside, she was suspicious of Chase Andrews but because he was the hot, charismatic football star, she couldn’t help herself? Why would she have risked her privacy and safety for one of the town’s most well-known womanizers? For these reasons, the intrigue around the death of Chase petered out for me very quickly.
This book is mildly entertaining, but it’s the kind of book that would serve well as a beach vacation read. I finished it but felt disengaged and disappointed by the end. Inevitably, there will be a film. I’ll pass.
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