I love Jojo Moyes. Like many people I was introduced to her writing with the novel Me Before You. I became immediately attached to Louisa Clark, mainly because I felt that Moyes had created her character by stepping inside my head! My husband was paralysed due to MS and when I fell in love with him he was in a similar wheelchair to Will, with the same interests and charismatic spirit. Sadly, I lost him in 2007 and I have read Moyes’ follow up novels and found her depiction of grief and moving forward intelligent, moving and real.
The Giver of Stars is a different type of novel, more historical fiction than romance. It’s setting is the Depression era and a small town in rural Kentucky where the Van Cleeve family own the mines where most people work. Levels of rural poverty are high, African-Americans are still subject to segregation and while middle class women are expected to stay home and know their place, women in poorer families are working hard while trying their best to feed and look after ever-growing families. Into this setting comes Alice, the English bride of the heir to this mining fortune. Bennet Van Cleeve is handsome and considerate, and their marriage seems to start well but once they reach the family home things change. Bennet lives with his father and the death of his mother still hangs heavy over the house, with everything still being run to her exacting standards. Alice finds she has little to do and the house is full of her late mother-in-law’s ornaments and china dolls. She daren’t change anything because Mr Van Cleeve doesn’t like anything to be out of it’s normal place. More worrying is the change in Bennet now they are home, despite showing some desire at the beginning, the proximity to his father seems to be affecting their sex life. Several months down the line their marriage is still unconsummated and Mr Van Cleeve keeps hinting about grandchildren, adding to the pressure she feels.
When a town meeting is called to discuss President Roosevelt’s initiative to get the rural poor reading, Alice senses an opportunity and an outlet for her unspent energy. Margery O’Hare will head up the initiative. She is an outspoken and self-sufficient women who doesn’t listen to the opinion of anyone else, particularly men. She opens a door for Alice to escape the claustrophobic Van Cleeve household, into the wild forests of Kentucky. Alice learns to ride a mule, and along with Margery and two other local women she sets out as a librarian for the Packhorse Library. At first, rural locals are suspicious of an Englishwoman coming to the door offering them books, but soon Alice finds a way in and starts to be trusted. She also finds she likes the open air, the smells of the forest and singing of the birds. She enjoys the freedom of more casual clothes and the camaraderie she is building up with her fellow librarians. She is close to Margery and when she confides about her marriage, Margery loans her a book she has been sneaking out with the novels and recipes. It is an instruction book on married love and Margery has been loaning it to poor women on her rounds who are inundated with children and need educating about sex. Alice takes the book home and a series of events are set in motion that change not only the Van Cleeve household, but the whole town.
Old Mr Van Cleeve is determined to deal with Margery O’Hare and vows to destroy the Packhorse Library altogether. Margery is shrewd and is sure that a devastating flood had more behind it than high rainfall and suspects the mines. However, she has left herself vulnerable with what Van Cleeve sees as evidence of transgressive behaviour: she is exposed as having a relationship out of wedlock, she has hired an African-American woman who used to run the coloured library and she is encouraging townswomen to take control of their own lives. She seems impervious to other people’s disapproval so what lengths will he have to go to in order to stop her? Meanwhile, Alice starts to fall into a friendship with Frank who helps out at the library by chopping wood, putting up shelves and being a general handyman. They bond over poetry and spend hours talking and working side by side in the library building. The other librarians have seen what’s happening, but Alice doesn’t seem to realise this man is falling in love with her.
I loved this book and writing about it again has made me want to reread it. I was on holiday the first time and I stayed in my holiday cottage for two days to read it cover to cover. As always with Moyes, it is beautifully written and researched, with characters I fell in love with. She writes about relationships with so much insight and emotional intelligence. She captures the tensions of the Depression perfectly, depicting the rural poverty where work is scarcer and poor women really take the brunt of the economic conditions. Stuck at home with ever growing families they must have felt desperate for a break. They had land to grow vegetables and keep livestock, but there was still worry over where the next meal was coming from and hoping and praying that there are no more mouths to feed. Just as in the recent pandemic, money worries and pressure meant more domestic abuse. Margery is determined to educate these women to keep themselves safe and prevent their families growing. The town hasn’t kept up with the national shift in women’s attitudes and opportunities. Moyes shows that feminine power is on the rise and the new attitudes towards feminism, as well as marriage and sex, could end up battling against old money and old values. For the women, the poorer families and those residents who are African-American losing the power struggle could be disastrous, and some characters might pay a high price. I was braced for tragedy, but found myself desperate for the progressive characters and attitudes to prevail. It was this struggle that built the tension and kept me reading till 2am! Moyes achieved something real, romantic and historically significant with this novel, but most of all it is simply great storytelling. This book is an absolute must read and I still think it is probably her best novel to date.