- What: The Giver of Stars
- Who: Jojo Moyes
- Pages: 387, hard cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
This blog loves Jojo Moyes. She first captured my attention four years ago when she created the great Louisa Clark in Me Before You. Three books and one movie later thanks to this lovely character and her series, and I was convinced that anything Moyes wrote would be my type of novel.
Her latest, The Giver of Stars, steers from her traditional style in all ways except one: strong female characters. Moyes’ 2019 novel gives us not one but an entire group of powerful women who go after what they want. But what about all the other ways, including the cover art, this novel varies from the Moyes’ literature that made her so popular? When authors stray from what defines them, it’s certainly a risk. Did the risk pay off in this instance?
Alice also takes a risk when she marries American Bennett Van Cleave. When he and his “godly” and rich father stride into her English hometown on a religious mission, she thinks everything she needs is right in front of her. Bennett has good looks and charm and makes her feel like she isn’t the hopeless, unruly young lady her family thinks she is. Plus, he offers her an escape from her stifling and claustrophobic home where she has few freedoms and little respect. When he proposes, she can’t help but say yes.
With visions of dreamy New York ahead of her, she makes the long trek from England to the beautiful … middle-of-nowhere 1930s Kentucky. Unfortunately, for Alice, Kentucky and marriage are nothing like she imagined. For one thing, the small town of Baileyville feels just as small-minded as Surrey, England. Bennett’s charm that he originally bestowed upon Alice also seems to dry up once he’s back home and under the unrelenting and constant watch of his father, the coal king of the town with steep political connections and an even steeper (ahem, hypocritical) moral code.
Failing to fit in anywhere, Alice immediately says yes when the Works Progress Administration starts a new packhorse library in town, which actually did occur during the Great Depression. The mobile library, which aims to bring all types of books to residents of Baileyville and the mountain people nearby — people who have little access to the written word — is run by the fearless Margery O’Hare, an unconventional woman who the older Van Cleave despises and who many eye with caution.
Alice joins the mission and starts spending her days riding a horse through the mountains, spreading the joy of books throughout the county, and learning from her fellow librarians who are a true force to be reckoned with — all to the chagrin of her father-in-law. As she creates her own life and forms her own friendships, she questions the choices she’s made and her own values, which put her in direct contrast with her new family and even the majority of her new hometown.
“She just wasn’t sure she had yet been to the place she was homesick for.” — The Giver of Stars
The inspiration for this novel is one of those stories that I can’t believe is not more well-known. Groups of women riding horseback to bring books to the poorest and most isolated of people? What a heartwarming and important story! I can’t help but think I would have been a packhorse librarian had I lived during the Great Depression — and knew how to ride a horse.
These are the type of women that Moyes would of course be drawn to for a novel, considering her previous work. They’re tough, live life by their own rules, yearn to help others, and don’t apologize for who they are. They’re not far off from Louisa Clark, especially Alice whose character arc rivals that of Louisa’s.
“Though she made her mark writing contemporary romance, Moyes proves just as adept at historical fiction, gracefully infusing her story with strong, memorable female characters and a sprinkling of men who can make a ‘heart flutter like a clean sheet on a long line,'” writes Karin Tanabe for The Washington Post.
The characters certainly give this book its spark. And the story that forms its foundation adds more oomph. But is Moyes really as adept in this new genre? Without these women and the powerful background story, I believe The Giver of Stars would be quite lackluster.
“‘There is always a way out of a situation. Might be ugly. Might leave you feeling like the earth had gone and shifted under your feet. But there is always a way around.'” — The Giver of Stars
The book sort of feels like it will never end, not too different from those false peaks you see all the time in the mountains. Just when I thought I had found the true plot point that would carry to the finish, another problem and more drama would surface. Would Margery’s story present the climax, or would it be Alice’s? Would the library be the moral of this book, or would some other rising action take hold?
Because of these false peaks and countless plot points, the book feels unfocused. In some ways, Moyes ties it all together at the end, but it’s not enough to forget that the middle feels never-ending in all the twists and turns she creates. I like everything Moyes gives when thinking about them as separate pieces, but I wish she could just pick a lane and offer more cohesion. At points, you feel the highest of highs as you root for these powerful women. At others, you just want to make it to the finish. All of this tells me that Moyes’ risks — though respected — may not have paid off.
“‘You know the worst thing about a man hitting you? … Ain’t the hurt. It’s that in that instant you realize the truth of what it is to be a woman. That it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how much better at arguing, how much better than them period. It’s when you realize they can always shut you up with a fist. Just like that.'” — The Giver of Stars
There are flaws, yes, but I don’t think any reader can deny the beauty in this novel. From the scenery to the characters and from the lessons to the relationships, Moyes provides many captivating and beatuiful characteristics. So let me leave you with this quote from Tanabe’s review, which highlights all the things this novel does right — even if I think there are a few things it does wrong:
“The Giver of Stars is a celebration of love, but also of reading, of knowledge, of female friendship, of the beauty of our most rural corners and our enduring American grit: the kind of true grit that can be found in the hills of Kentucky and on the pages of this inspiring book.”