Jessica Spotswood is best known for her debut series, The Cahill Witch Chronicles, paranormal YA with swoony romance and twisty suspense. With Wild Swans, Jessica has made a masterful transition to coming-of-age contemporary, and I am so pleased she chose to broaden her horizons, because Wild Swans is truly well-done.
In Wild Swans, we meet Ivy Milbourn the summer before her senior year of high-school in small-town Cecil. She is well-known as a Milbourn girl, being the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of talented Milbourn women who wrote prize-winning poetry and painted troubled, captivating stormy landscapes, before dying early and tragic deaths. She’s also the girl who was abandoned by her mother as a baby and raised by her professorial Granddad, who shows his love by pushing her to live up to the Milbourn legacy.
What Ivy would want you to know, however, is that she’s captain of the swim team and a lover of literature. She has two best friends, Claire and Abby, who know her well and love her unconditionally. Beyond all that, she’s a diligent student, and she works sincerely towards finding her “niche”; the place in the world where she truly belongs, where she truly excels. Yet, no piano, ballet, poetry, French, painting, or dance class really offers that opportunity to shine. Ivy is okay, maybe even good, at most things she does, but she is not extraordinary; not like her Milbourn ancestors. Granddad’s acute disappointment, and the fact that he tries to hide it, sits heavy on her shoulders.
Ivy usually spends her summers attending classes or camps, eager to please Granddad, but this summer, she’s determined to relax and have fun with Claire and Abby, and not worry about Granddad’s expectations so much. Then, after fifteen years of radio silence, her mother, Erica, unexpectedly turns up with two girls – her sisters – in tow, asking for a place to stay until she figures things out. Everything Ivy thought she knew about her mother, about family, comes into question. Suddenly the summer is less about forgetting herself, and more about finding herself.
I really loved the character development in Wild Swans. You can’t help but like Ivy. She’s clearly intelligent and strong-willed, yet she is also eager to please and to conform to the expectations of those around her. You can’t help but feel empathy for her, as she struggles with intense feelings of inadequacy, comparing her achievements, or lack thereof, to the other Milbourn women. On top of that, she also lives with the knowledge that her wild-child mother willingly left her and then signed away her parental rights. Who wouldn’t feel inadequate with such a past?
Yet, Ivy also has two incredible friends on her side, Abby and Claire, with Claire being my favorite. They stick up for her, they stand by her, and they share their trials with her, too. It is through the various interactions of this trio that Jessica deftly and elegantly addresses sexual agency, fat-shaming, teenage sex, feminism, and diversity. Claire is such a bad-ass character, with her confidence, honesty, and feminist views! I want young girls to read this book just to see what real friendships look and sound like, as well as to learn how to handle situations when someone is being bullied or shamed for who they are, what they look like, or how they dress. This aspect may be my favorite of the entire book!
There is some romance within the story, but I won’t spend any time on it in this review, as it is not the focus of the book, and I also do not want to spoil the review for those who have not yet read the book. Suffice it to say that the romance is a slow burn, and while I initially questioned the guy’s intentions, I came to like him quite a bit in the end. Bonus points that poetry and literature were involved! Those looking for major swoons will not find them, but I imagine you’ll be happy with what we do get.
The story itself is not faced-past or action-packed. Jessica really focused on the relationships and character development here, and the book is that much better for it. Erica, Ivy’s mother, clearly has a lot of baggage. There were times I wanted Granddad to kick her out, or for Ivy to scream at her. Yet, I also loved how considerate Grandad and Ivy were of her two sisters, Iz and Gracie. They were just as eager to please as Ivy was, just for different reasons. They didn’t have a legacy weighing on their shoulders, but they did yearn for stability and love. Once Ivy recognized this, she stepped up to the plate and into her role of “big sister.”
The various issues presented within the book, involving both the main and secondary characters, are not tied up in a tidy bow at the end, nor does everyone get what they want. The story is bittersweet because of this, and altogether, a breathtaking coming-of-age novel, in which Ivy must learn that trying to live up to other’s expectations of us can often lead to failing our own selves, and that family is not so much something that you’re part of, but rather something you do.
Kudos to Jessica for writing such a beautiful story, for being sensitive to diversity in terms of race, sexual orientation, and body types, and for giving us characters with whom we can relate, no matter where we are in life. Wild Swans is a must-read, dear reader!
Have you ever struggled to meet someone’s expectations of you? How did you handle it? Would you have done anything differently?
If you had one piece of advice to give a girl who feels like she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, what would it be?