Title: The Ophelia Girls
Author: Jane Healey
Published: August 10th 2021
Publisher: Mariner Books
Genre: Literary Fiction (Historical, LGBT)
Age Range: Adult
Length: 368 pages
Representation: LGBTQIA+ (f/f), cancer recovery
Homophobia, drowning (of page), grooming, parental neglect and abuse, attempted suicide, mentions of infertility due to chemotherapy
A mother’s secret past and her daughter’s present collide in this richly atmospheric novel from the acclaimed author of The Animals at Lockwood Manor.
In the summer of 1973, Ruth and her four friends were obsessed with pre-Raphaelite paintings—and a little bit obsessed with each other. Drawn to the cold depths of the river by Ruth’s house, the girls pretend to be the drowning Ophelia, with increasingly elaborate tableaus. But by the end of that fateful summer, real tragedy finds them along the banks.
Twenty-four years later, Ruth returns to the suffocating, once grand house she grew up in, the mother of young twins and seventeen-year-old Maeve. Joining the family in the country is Stuart, Ruth’s childhood friend, who is quietly insinuating himself into their lives and gives Maeve the attention she longs for. She is recently in remission, unsure of her place in the world now that she is cancer-free. Her parents just want her to be an ordinary teenage girl. But what teenage girl is ordinary?
Alternating between the two fateful summers, The Ophelia Girls is a suspense-filled exploration of mothers and daughters, illicit desire, and the perils and power of being a young woman.
I’ve taken my sweet time with writing this review because The Ophelia Girls is one of those books that keeps you in its clutches long after you’ve read the last page. I really wanted to do it justice by writing an equally beautiful review, but alas, I can never achieve that no matter how long I wait and try. So here we go with what I could manage to put into words.
Let’s start with the basics: The Ophelia Girls is a story of both the past and present and how they connect. Of messy promises and girls having to grow up too fast. Of secrets and little stolen moments of time. It’s achingly beautiful in its writing.
We follow the perspective of Ruth, both in the past as her teenage self and in the present, mother of Maeve. And we follow Maeve, battling her new life after being in remission, not knowing how to feel, finally free of the illness that plagued her for so much time. She is lost in the new environment and there is a disconnect between mother and daughter. Neither of them really knowing how to talk to each other now.
I love how real and messy all the characters are. How every one of them but especially Maeve and Ruth both have the feeling of being lost, of wanting attention but not getting any or the right kind of attention. Of everything being about other people, everyone is concerned and overwhelmed with their own battles and unable to connect with each other.
I’m deliberately not talking about any of the other characters because I think it’s best to meet them for yourself. Get to know them, page by page.
While I love the characters, messy, flawed and unique; loved the plot slowly unravelling throughout the book and connecting past and present; the thing I loved most was the writing. It immediately grabbed me, from the very first sentence. It perfectly captures this heavy inertia, lethargy or drowsiness of a long late summer day.
This feels like august, the end of summer, of the carefree vacation time, the melancholy of soaking up the last few moments, sun rays and knowing what’s to come. Illustrated or underlined by sentences that create this tension, trepidation and foreboding:
„We returned to the river, the cold lick of water on our skin like an oath, unaware that his rule, this promise, would be broken before the end of the summer on the same night our world splintered and fell apart.“
The writing style perfectly matched the tone of the story and both the tragic beauty behind Ophelia and the photos the girls recreated. I’ve always loved Ophelia, the paintings of her, it always touched a certain part of my soul and I ache for the summer Ruth had, even though I know that something bad happened at the end of it.
Her teenage chapters were probably my favourites.
The memories of how she spent the summer with four other girls and the photos they took. How they created artful shots, how much fun they had during that summer. All the stolen moments and secrets that bonded them. And reading all that with the underlying tragedy that we know to come even though we don’t know exactly what happened. Only that Ruth never speaks about that fateful summer.
This book will forever be in my heart!
I also really appreciated the ending (even though I wanted this book to go for forever) because it fit. It wasn’t sugary sweet or overly optimistic but realistic and hopeful.