YA Weekend: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of The Hazel Wood
Publisher: Flatiron Books (January 30, 2018)
Length: 368 pages
Seventeen-year-old protagonist Alice Proserpine has never stayed in one place for long. Most of her childhood memories involve being on the road, staying with one family friend or another until her mother Ella decided that they had to move on. Ella never spoke of why they had to live this way, but Alice always felt the sense that her mother was trying to run away from something. But run away from what? Alice has no idea, though she can guess from Ella’s tight-lippedness about her past that it might have something to do with the Hazel Wood, a magnificent home nestled somewhere in the woods of upstate New York. The estate belonged to Alice’s grandmother Althea Proserpine, an author who achieved cult celebrity with her book of fairy tales titled “Tales from the Hinterland”. It was probably no coincidence that no sooner had they received news of Althea’s death, Ella finally decided that they could settle down in the city and start a normal life. She even marries Harold, a wealthy businessman, so that Alice has to start going to school at an exclusive academy for rich kids, where she feels like a fish out of water.
The only person closest to a friend is Ellery Finch, a somewhat geeky and awkward boy whose father is one of the richest people in New York City. Finch also happens to be an Althea Proserpine superfan, and has been fascinated with Alice ever since he found out that the author was her grandmother. Alice, however, is nettled to have to admit that she knows next to nothing about Althea, nor has she even ever read “Tales from the Hinterland”, for Ella had always forbidden her to seek out her grandmother or her work. Still, Alice had tried, and none of her efforts had ever borne fruit. Althea’s book has become very rare and hard to find, and it appears only a small circle of mega-enthusiasts know all the stories. Then one day, Alice comes home from school to find that her mother has been stolen away, and the only clue she left behind was a message: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” Getting a sick feeling that this has everything to do with her grandmother and her fairy tales, Alice turns to Finch, the only person she can think of who might be able to help her rescue Ella.
If my usual blurb seems a bit more detailed than normal, it’s because The Hazel Wood is a novel filled with so much breathtaking allusion and tantalizing prose that it’s almost overwhelming to consider the amount of setup packed into the first few chapters. Although the fantasy aspect doesn’t come into play for quite a while, even from the start I could feel the aura of mystery and magic wrapped around everything despite the ordinary urban setting.
I was also pulled into the story right away, captivated by the power of Alice’s personality and voice. Granted, she’s not always the most pleasant person to be around, being prone to some truly disconcerting moments of anger as well as snide remarks. But given her itinerant upbringing and the darkness that is later revealed in her life, it makes perfect sense. She also has a dry sense of humor that I found strangely endearing, as well as those rare moments where we got to catch a glimpse of her true self through the cracks in her armor. Belying Alice’s fierce independence is in fact a frightened young girl whose nightmare scenario has just come to pass. Her mother has always been a constant presence in her life, and now she is gone. It is little wonder then that Alice ends up latching onto Finch, who became my favorite character the moment he came into the picture. I’ve always had this soft spot for the geeky type of guys in YA who might not be conventionally attractive but are nonetheless charming and cute in their own way.
As time goes on, the book starts going through a transformation, becoming darker and stranger until at the end, readers are faced full on with the magical fairy tale-like elements of the story. Ironically, I actually found myself less enamored of The Hazel Wood at this point, because the plot loses a lot of its uniqueness and instead plunges into territory that has been covered before in a plethora of other YA novels and re-imaginings with fairy tale themes or settings. Without doing into spoilers, I also did not like how the book ended. One could say this was a fitting way to wrap things up given the overall tone of the story, and, if I’m being completely honest, on some level I can even understand why the author decided to do it this way. Still, I was left pretty feeling pretty cheated and unsatisfied. It seemed a shame that we started things roaring but ended them on a whimper.
However, I am encouraged by the fact that a follow-up is already in the works. Rarely have I been this happy to find out that a book I’ve just finished is going to be part of a series. While I think The Hazel Wood will work perfectly fine as a standalone, if ever a book needed a sequel, it’s this one. Hopefully, the next chapter of Alice’s journey will reveal more answers and dispel the unsettled feelings I got from the ending. Above all, I’m also looking forward to reading more of Melissa Albert’s gorgeous writing. The Hazel Wood may have a few flaws, but overall it is an impressive debut.