Book Review: Wild Swans

McIntosh & Otis, the literary agency I intern at, recently asked if I would be willing to contribute a blog post to their website. Of course, I said yes! My contribution: “In Defense of the Good Girl“.

Which brings us to WILD SWANS by Jessica Spotswood.


17-year-old Ivy Milbourn is thoughtful, smart, and hardworking–a good student, good granddaughter, and good friend all-around. But ‘good’ isn’t good enough for the Milbourn women, who for generations have been great: brilliant poets and artists, but also troubled and doomed to tragically short lives. Everyone in the small coastal college town of Cecil knows about the family legacy–or curse. The summer before senior year was supposed to be golden, unburdened by extracurriculars and expectations at last. But then Ivy’s unstable mother Erica, who abandoned her and her grandfather when she was a baby, returns unexpectedly…along with Isobel and Gracie, the sisters she never knew she had.

I haven’t read much contemporary YA, except for Speak and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and Looking for Alaska. I also haven’t yet read Jessica Spotswood’s earlier Cahill Witch Chronicles series (though that’s on my radar, as witchcraft is very much up my alley!). But I was very enthusiastic about A Tyranny of Petticoats, her feminist historical anthology, and I adored the premise of WILD SWANS. I love dysfunctional families and family curses and I adore brilliant, messy, complicated women. Appropriately, the book’s preface is the poem “Wild Swans” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

This was an appealing, sensitive, but above all honest coming-of-age story. What I like best about it is that it takes some of the common fare in teenage stories and summer books–family angst, boy drama, etc.–but deals with them in an emotional realism that’s almost unflinching. The coastal setting seems to suit a beach read, but while there’s lurid family history and hot boys with poetry tattooed on their arms, WILD SWANS is not a glossy fantasy. This isn’t one of those books where the guy the girl has known her whole life can suddenly fall for her and everything just goes back to normal, or where time can heal all family wounds. Just like Grandma Milbourn’s celebrated landscapes, Ivy’s life is stormy and turbulent when it should be golden, but unlike the grandmother who drowned herself and the mother who ran away, Ivy manages to find hope and even a kind of peace.

Jessica Spotswood has described this story as “feminist”. Wild Swans tackles many complicated issues, including eating disorders, sexuality, race, class, transphobia, and mental illness, with grace and deftness, and the diverse cast is a strength of the novel. But whereas Ivy’s gal-pal Claire is what Caitlin Moran proudly calls a ‘strident feminist’–she’s the only out bisexual in a small-minded town, she volunteers at a women’s health clinic and plans to major in Women’s Studies–the central message of the novel is radical in a different but no less powerful way. Ivy, unlike all the other women in her family, is ‘too nice’, someone who struggles to assert herself amidst both family pressure to be great and societal pressures to be good. She notes: “Here in Cecil, girls are still expected to be nice. Quiet. All sugar. Maybe a little spice.”

Sound familiar? For me, it did. In the debate about ‘leaning in’ and whether women say ‘sorry’ way too much (something I know I’m very guilty of), this certainly felt authentic and all-too-relatable to me. Last quarter, Her Campus at UCD hosted the Perfectly Imperfect College Tour with Plan B One-Step. Girl Code‘s Carly and Nessa gave a talk, and they noted that the majority of young women have felt pressure–both external and internal–to be perfect. And I know all the females in my family and friends have certainly felt enormous pressure to always put others before ourselves. In the age of social media and SAT tutoring, I can’t help but feel a pang for high school me, who would’ve benefited a lot from hearing this:

To all the girls with thirsty hearts who worry that you aren’t enough. (You are.)

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