Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Book Review: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Am I not enough? Was I not good enough? … Because sometimes love isn’t enough.

When women were dragonsThis blog post is titled When Women were Dragons: A Book Review because of SEO and brand styling and yada yada yada. But it isn’t really a review. I mean, I could write a review of the book, which I’ve been looking forward to reading since I read about it back in March. I could write that I liked it and that my copy is full of underlining and notes. Or how it made me think about Naomi Alderman’s The Power and how desperately I want women to have some actual power that would change the world, and how without power I feel in the United States. I could write about the writing, and the character development, and how my real complaint is with the ending, which kind of fizzled for me because it was too pat. About the inclusion of Tennyson’s poem “Tithonus.” Or even about how I kept giggling over a one-star Amazon review I read, wherein the reviewer hated the book because it wasn’t really about dragons.

(Nope. It’s about feminism, and how women both lose and take back power in myriad ways, and what courage is sometimes like, and how family can both devastate and save you.)

But I had such an emotional reaction to this one that instead I’m going to write about how the story impacted my life. (Thus it is inherently spoiler-y, although I’ll do my best to  keep that at a minimum.)

In the novel, which begins in the 1950s, women sometimes just spontaneously turn into dragons. This is not a thing people in polite society talk about; like periods and breast cancer it is a “women’s issue” and, even though houses are burned down and husbands “vanish,” society just pretends like it doesn’t happen. Alex lives with her mother, who is in remission from breast cancer, and her father, who is a bank executive (and a jerk in the classical 50s sense). She loves her niece, Beatrice, and her aunt, Marla. Then, one day, America experiences the Mass Dragoning, when thousands of women become dragons; her aunt is one of them. Her mother finds Beatrice and tells Alex that she doesn’t have an aunt but has always had a sister, and then they go on, pretending that their family has always been this way. (Definitely not talking about what actually happened.)

Eventually Alex has to take care of Beatrice on her own. And that was where the book got problematic for me.

Not because the writing wasn’t good or the story didn’t make sense (it is and it does). But because I am very purposefully avoiding books about sisters these days.

This is because my relationships with my three sisters are so damaged they will never, I believe, recover. There are many stories involved in this damage, stretching back many years—my own sisters-are-difficult novel, I guess. Or memoir, but it does almost feel like fiction because when I stop and look at it, I cannot believe this is my reality. The recent experience (I don’t even know what to call it, betrayal, rejection, abandonment…there isn’t a word for “my sister broke up with me”) is the most painful, as (as far as I understand) nothing really happened, except I just became unacceptable to be involved with in ways I am too stupid to intrinsically understand. I have argued and discussed and tried to understand, but it hasn’t done any good, really; that sister simply doesn’t want me in her life in any significant ways.

So as the story in When Women were Dragons progressed, and I realized it was getting more and more sister-y, I almost stopped reading. The writing pulled me through but I confess: there were many tears on my part. Near the end, it becomes apparent that Beatrice desperately wants to dragon, but she is holding herself back from it because Alex doesn’t want to lose her. Eventually, though, Alex has to come to peace with what her sister wants. “Essentially, you have a choice,” one of the characters tells her, “you can force your sister to remain in the form you know, or you can accept her as she wishes to be.”

It’s a novel so the connection isn’t exact. But similar enough to make me grieve all over again. Because my sister dragoned, in her own way. She chose to change forms because the one she had before—the form that included me in her life—was unacceptable. In a sense, I did get a choice; not, though, about whether or not she would change. She changed regardless of me. (And, really: why would my opinion matter? The point of her choice is to NOT be influenced by me.) The choice I had was how I would respond. But the painful part is that, unlike Beatrice who still wants a relationship with Alex after she changes, my sister doesn’t.

I finished this novel feeling horrible all over again about myself. Was Alex selfish in not wanting to lose her sister? Am I selfish because I didn’t want this change, this sister-less life, because I never would have chosen it? Was Alex willfully blind in not seeing how her refusal of Beatrice’s change was damaging Beatrice? Was I blind to how my presence made my sister’s life miserable?

For Alex, although she wouldn’t have chosen it, her sister’s change gives her more freedom. She no longer has the responsibility of a child to take care of while she tries to go through school. She’s able to continue interacting with her sister and to make her own life.

For me, I just feel desolate.

I can’t say this book gave me any enlightenment in regards to my sister relationships. It might have actually made it hurt more, in fact. Even having a metaphor—“dragon” as a verb, to undergo a massive change in order to have the life you want instead of the life society gave you; fighting to be a truer version of yourself no matter how much it might impact others’ lives—doesn’t truly help. It’s just metaphor, after all. It brings a bit of understanding but it doesn’t make it hurt less.

In the book, not all of the dragons are like Beatrice. Most of them don’t stay, or they don’t come back. They simply leave: their family, their friends, their homes and occupations. Part of me understands that, as regular life can become awfully heavy sometimes. And most of those husbands were awful. But I cannot understand mothers leaving children; if that makes me a weak feminist, so be it. But maybe THAT is what makes it hard for me to understand my sister’s choices, too. Yes; love, so deeply intwined with memory, can be a burden, but it isn’t only that. Life is more complicated than leave or stay, than dragon or human. Beatrice strikes the tenuous balance, maintaining relationships while being who she really wanted to be. Love was enough to make it work.

It wasn’t for my sister.


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