Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: "When the World Was Young" by Elizabeth Gaffney

Wonderfully moving and beautifully written

About the book

The novel follows Wally Baker who's nine years old when the novel starts. While her father is in Japan, Wally lives with her mother in Brooklyn and for the war effort, they have taken in a boarder— Mr. Niederman. On V J Day, not only does the world change, Wally's own world changes drastically and mysteriously. Surrounded by an wonderful cast who all have to adjust to the changes, we follow Wally into adulthood as she tries to make sense of her own destiny, with little or no help from the people who bear the answers, and with glimpses of their point of view as well.

What I loved

As with any novel that is not necessarily plot driven, meaningful and memorable characters and their  arcs is probably the most important thing. The main character Wally goes from being a nine year old girl, to graduating college. She's a strong female protagonist, described as a tomboy, which is what I like most about her. She has an enormous passion for Wonder Woman and... bugs. We'll get back to that later. Being that both her mother and her grandmother are doctors—which was highly unusual in that time—it is no surprise Wally would be such a strong girl.
Apart from Wally, there's quite a cast of characters: her mother Dr. Stella Baker, the grandmother "Gigi" and grandfather Waldo Wallace, Mr. Niedermann, her dad Admiral Baker, the housemaid Loretta and her son Ham. It's not an easy feat to give them all original personalities and make their presence important to the story. Although many of characters are more involved in narrative summaries of past events rather than in scenes of the actual plot, I could always sense their presence and the impact they had on Wally's life. Bravo!

There is quite a lot of hopping between the actual time of the story and the plot to what happened in the past. But I think Elizabeth does this beautifully and I never had a problem following what was actually happening right now. Also, even in the narrative summaries, she does a great job at combining both telling and showing, because there simply wasn't enough time or space to show everything.

Back to the ants—I will never look at ants the same way again. The author managed to make something I find appalling into something fascinating and impressive. And what is even more interesting was how much information there is on ants, yet it doesn't feel like information dumping at all. Thank you Elizabeth Gaffney for changing my view on them!

What I didn't love

It can be difficult to cover ten plus years and different generations and their history into one novel. And although I think Elizabeth does a great job doing this on a larger scale, in telling bits and pieces from the history of the family, the actual plot feels a bit rushed at times. Some important and plot turning events happens rather suddenly without any build up or set up. Instead of feeling "Wow, I did not see that coming" I felt "Really? No build up to this magnificent big moment?"

Being a screenwriter, I am always a little picky when it comes to the dialogue. I noticed how Wally doesn't sound like a nine year old at all. I couldn't see any difference in her voice from Ham's—who's a few years older. And as she gets older her tone and voice remained the same consistently throughout, which isn't how it works.

The ending is the only thing that prevents me from giving this wonderful novel five stars. I will not give any spoilers but I didn't believe it at all and I don't think it was necessary. I was trying to think what else the ending could look like, and I have to agree that if you truly want a happy and dramatic ending where all the remaining characters come together, I guess this was the best one. And to some, perhaps that is the only satisfying way to end a novel. This wasn't a book I read because I wanted to get to the ending. I read it for the writing and for the characters and I would have been perfeclty satisfied with a less happy one. Instead the overly-joyous ending cheapened the novel just a tad bit.


I noticed this novel has received mixed reviews. Some have pointed out there was a lack of emotion in her writing. According to me, Elizabeth Gaffney painted a vivid enough picture and the stories and internal conflicts of the complicated characters stood tall on their own without needing any overly-dramatic emotional embellishments or help from the narrator. This is not a plot driven novel—it is a wonderfully moving and beautifully written character driven literary piece of work and I think Elizabeth Gaffney has did a marvelous job.

Author: Elizabeth Gaffney
Publisher: Random House
Release date: August 5, 2014