Book Review: The Invention of Wings

the invention of wingsSince I’m one of the last people I know to read this book, I was familiar with its premise and prepared to find something emotional, powerful and inspiring (the words that pop up most often). I found a good and emotional read, but I didn’t get the powerful and inspiring. Is it me?

According to the author’s note, she set out to write about the Grimke sisters, real life abolitionists and women’s rights activists, mostly forgotten by history. Much of the novel is told by Sarah, a fictionalized account of the sisters’ journeys from slave-holding southern belles to Quakers, writers and public speakers.

To add perspective to the novel, Sue Monk Kidd also creates the character of Hetty/Handful, a young slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Like Sarah, Handful has a strong-will, intelligence and determination. I fell in love with her from page one.

“My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.”

I love a character whose wisdom comes from the heart and not the head.

“you got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.”

It’s a good story, a slave and her mistress, neither of whom wants to be tied to the other, developing a friendship that can only lead to pain. In the tradition of good historic fiction, there are many details of life in Charleston in the early 19th century and as Sarah makes her journey northward, the novel is populated with historical figures.

But, as much as I was engrossed in the story (I flew through this novel in 2 days), I was bothered by the emotional distance between me and the characters. Handful and Sarah seem to be telling their stories as recollections from some unnamed point in the future which lacked immediacy for me.

I also kept waiting for the action of Sarah’s story to begin. It’s not until the last third of the novel that she becomes fully animated and involved in her own life. This might be the trouble in basing fiction on real people. The author is somewhat beholden to the slow pace at which real life takes place.

“I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”

I wanted so much more of her story once she’s out from under her mother’s cane and her relationship with Nina once they’re on the road speaking. There seems to be so much undiscovered drama in the tension between women’s and slaves’ rights.

But that’s not the book Sue Monk Kidd wrote. She wrote the story of two women trapped and struggling to break free.

“My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Invention of Wings

  1. Alas you are not the last person to have read this one. There’s me. I’ve had it on my shelves since November and haven’t picked it up yet. It’s sure to be one of my autumn reads at this rate. Sounds interesting but I have a feeling I’m going to agree with you completely Alena.

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    • I wish I could be gushingly enthusiastic, but I will say that it was an engaging story that pulled me in. A fast read, which I needed after Americanah, which I did not love as much as you did — even while recognizing that I should have.

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  2. I rally enjoyed the book and do believe the author was somewhat hamstrung by the reluctance of Sarah to come into her own, all those years as wife in waiting, and then… well no spoilers of course.

    It also perhaps comes about by having two protagonists when the author finds that one has a stronger voice than the other. It was interesting to listen to her talk to Oprah about the voices.

    For all its flaws, it’s an enjoyable work of historical fiction and I love anything that shines a light on women in history who are little known but tried to improve the lot for those who were treated as lesser beings. Incredible that the author herself lived in the same town and had not heard of these two sisters until researching her book.

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  3. You know, I read it a while ago and can’t remember the details, but I do remember telling people about it, AS I was reading it, and being in love with what I learned about the slave culture; about how Handful, for instance, got her name ( and wasn’t someone named “Basket”?) I remember admiring the absolute perseverance of the characters. Your review makes me want to go back and read it again to see if I was connected to the characters or if I just loved the language and the new information.

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    • Handful was her basket name (not the name given by slave owners). I loved it as I started, but it just didn’t quite live up to its own promise for me.
      I concede that I am in the minority opinion on this one.

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  4. Sounds like you still liked it a lot, so when I pick it up (because I do want to sometime) I will just make sure not to think it’s going to blow me away. I like the idea of learning more about the time and place in which it is set. Good review- I love the quotes!

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