Book review: Jojo Moyes, ‘The Giver of Stars’
Jojo Moyes, as the cover of this book tells us, is the author of the bestselling ‘Me Before You’, which was made into a successful film in 2016. So expectations were high for ‘The Giver of Stars’, her sixteenth novel.
I was drawn in by the blurb, which begins “Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve, hoping to escape her stifling life in England”. Adventure and conflict, two key elements of story, are there immediately. And the book delivers on this promise from page one. The prologue depicts a woman on horseback in the woods who meets a threatening stranger. A frightening encounter ensues and the woman only barely escapes. We are left with an air of tension and mystery: who is the woman, why was she alone on horseback, and not least, why does she have a heavy book with her?
The prologue also gives a hint of what is to be a key theme of the book when we are told, “And there is the bare truth of it, for her and all the women around here. Doesn’t matter how smart you are, how clever, how self-reliant – you can always be bettered by a stupid man with a gun.”
The main story then switches to the viewpoint of Alice Wright, newly arrived in the town of Baileyville, Kentucky, in 1937. The author has a lot to do in the first few chapters to ensure that readers quickly accept and relate to the whole cast of characters, the locale, and the era. This is no small task. Moyes handles it deftly in a number of ways.
First off, to conjure up a vivid picture of the locale, she uses slang, idioms and accents in the dialogue that are universally recognised (whether accurate or not is another matter) as belonging to the Appalachian region of the USA. She uses just the right amount of “ain’t”, “ole” and “git fast”; she doesn’t overdo it. (When talking about accents in books I always think of the character of Joseph in Wuthering Heights, whose speech was so twisted by Bronte’s attempts to reproduce his accent that the character was basically incomprehensible.)
Secondly, she uses well-known historical references – such as to the Depression, President and Mrs Roosevelt, the mining industry and poverty in the area – to situate the story in the period in question. The position of women in society at the time is brought up just a few pages in. The reactions of the townsfolk to the proposal to set up a mobile library run by women reflects the mixed views of the time.
No story set in the USA can overlook the issue of race. Moyes tackles it cleverly. There are black characters: two among the main characters, as well as the many local black men who work in the mine. These characters are constrained by the social norms of the time: Sophia Williams previously worked in the ‘Colored Library’ in the nearby town, her brother worked in the mine, and they now live in poverty in a tiny cabin. Sophia is welcomed and accepted by the other women who work with the mobile library, but her role is limited to that of administrator; she doesn’t go out distributing the books on horseback like the other (white) women, and she doesn’t like to be seen at public gatherings. Sophia herself accepts these limitations uncomplainingly and while some of the other women murmur against the injustice, the status quo is never actually challenged within the narrative.
This general acceptance by the characters of racial inequality jars a little for contemporary readers. However, as well as reflecting the views of the time, this ring-fencing of a sensitive issue is also characteristic of the genre. To confront and deal with difficult social and historical issues is not in the remit of romance novels. Given the constraints of the genre, Moyes deals with the issue of race competently and in a plausible way.
A main theme in The Giver of Stars is women’s empowerment through sisterhood. Moyes open this topic straight away by depicting the establishment of the town’s mobile library, run by women. Sisterhood comes from the top; we learn that this is a nationwide initiative championed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Alice, badly let down by the men in her life, finds acceptance, fulfilment and a new self-confidence in her work with the all-female operation. Its success in bringing literacy and enjoyment to the isolated poor people of the area is due in no small part to the solidarity and mutual support of the library’s staff. Moyes nicely juxtaposes this success with the toxic, destructive, male atmosphere of the mines. Growth through female solidarity is also illustrated in the fact that Izzy Brady learns to work with her physical disability and to stop regarding it as a fatal weakness.
There are good men in this story, though. It’s amusing that the two main “good” men are the sexy ones, Sven Gustavsson and Fred Guisler. This division is further reinforced by the depiction of the Van Cleve men as repressed and puritanical; Bennett cannot engage sexually with Alice, while her growing affection for Fred culminates towards the end in the longed-for act of lovemaking.
Women taking control of their own sexuality is yet another theme in the book. A banned (in the USA) work of the time, Married Love by Marie Stopes, is passed around among the women of the area in a further example of empowerment through sisterly solidarity. Alice’s own sexual awakening, which runs in parallel to her progress towards self-fulfilment, is shown to be another outcome of literacy and education.
This being a novel, there has to be a crisis. The shocking developments that occur about two-thirds of the way in are unexpectedly harsh and gritty. Previously strong bonds are tested to their limits, characters crack under pressure, and the dark underside of a misogynist society is revealed. Moyes brings everything back successfully at the end, order and harmony are restored, and the values espoused by the book – sisterhood, education, literacy, empowerment – are shown to be victorious.
I highly recommend this book as a great, rollicking story well told with equal measures of humour and grit.