Monday, May 30, 2011

Juno's Daughters - A Book Review

Calliope asked for volunteers to review a work of fiction, and since I am always interested in reading new books, I signed up. For the last year or so, I've been reading light fiction, because it requires little thought. I'm generally an escapist reader. When I read the first chapter of Juno's Daughters online, I thought it would be a good read. I've been to Whidbey Island, so I have a bordering acquaintance with the area. I have a daughter. I like Shakespeare and Led Zepplin.

I received a (free*) copy of the book and began reading it right away. By about the third chapter, I suspected that I would not be able to identify with any of the characters. By the fourteenth chapter, I had decided that I didn't really like the book. But I had agreed to write a review of it, so some further reflection was required.

The story involves a single mother of two daughters who lives on San Juan Island. During the summer, the island puts on summer Shakespeare theater, importing actors from the mainland. Jenny, the mother, and her older daughter, Lilly develop an interest in the same actor. Meanwhile, Frankie, the younger daughter, is experiencing a series of desertions in her life.

Some of the main issues that bothered me were parenting decisions. Essentially, promiscuity and drug use were laughed off. This is where I had to ask myself if I were being a prude. I know I'm fairly repressed/prim/uptight regarding myself, but my best friend is a try-everything-once/let-it-all-hang-out/free-thinker. I swear like a sailor (sometimes), and I enjoy a rude joke and double entendre (with the proper audience). Jenny seems to shrug her shoulders at Lilly's sampling of all the teenage boys in the area and what seems to be a fairly chronic use of marijuana. That is not how I would react. And competing with my daughter for a man? That just seems icky. (And as a cynic, I suspect the man will almost always take the 18 year old over the 42 year old.)


But then there was a segment of the plot that involved a "naked rehearsal." Frankie, a thirteen year old girl, is expected by everyone on the island to participate in the naked rehearsal, where all of the actors are required to do their parts without clothing. The only one (aside from her mother's half-hearted "You don't have to do it if you don't want to") who seems to understand that it might be a bit much for a young girl (um, the ONLY young girl) to undress in the presence of a bunch of adults, including unfamiliar men, is a young, African-American, gay man.

Upon reflection, I think my main problem with the story is the incongruity. Frankie is supposed to have grown up on an isolated island, without TV. So the advanced sexualization of young girls would be muted there. And no one knows for sure what the "naked rehearsal" is until they participate, so it doesn't seem like the people on the island habitually wander around naked. It doesn't make much sense for a mother to make so little of this. Jenny, the mother, is a survivor of an abusive marriage. On the one hand, she is strong enough to determine the length and terms of her subsequent relationships with men on the island. On the other hand, she's completely passive when it comes to her daughters' behavior. She sees herself as a teenager in Lilly, but does nothing to try and advise Lilly on how to choose a direction in fact, she actively resists any attempts to help Lilly become an independent adult. Jenny finds piles of love letters in Lilly's room, and rather than worrying about Lilly's emotional health, Jenny worries that no one will ever write her a love letter again. It just doesn't ring true, for me.

Finally, there were some plot devices that were vaguely annoying. The actors visiting the island were referred to by the names of the characters they were to play in The Tempest. That seems...demeaning. The homeless teenager scene in Seattle provides a stereotypical minor side villain. I don't know if it was plausible or not...I suspect a naive 13 year old would likely have met a more violent fate (however, this may be due to the fact that I work in the crime lab, and I expect people to be evil instead of merely mean). Also, the Led Zepplin reference? It was minor and seemed like an afterthought. The cover review proclaims it "part Led Zepplin anthem." I would disagree.

All in all, a mixed review - I didn't really like the book, but it did make me think about my values. It wasn't a good escape from everyday life, but it certainly provoked a reaction. Read it yourself. See what you think.

*Is that what I have to do for those FCC folks?


  1. Hmmm ... not convinced I'd put this on my list. (Too many books to read not enough time - even if I live to 100!) Thanks for the heads up.

  2. From the way you describe it, I wouldn't have enjoyed it much either.

    Thanks for the honest review.

  3. Thank you for reading this stuff so I wouldn't waste the 45 pages before I brought it back to the library.
    I just finished all the #1 Ladies Detective Series, very enjoyable escapism.
    Your disclaimer made me chuckle, thanks, aykm.

  4. you are invited to follow my blog

  5. I liked your review. Sounds like you have really thought about it. Thing is, I have this nagging feeling that maybe the author did a cruddy job of writing about a mother/daughter relationship because they don't have a child... I put my child above myself in every way, 1000 times more passionately than I could have ever imagined before having him... so maybe they just don't have the perspective?