Orchid and the Wasp
By Caoilinn Hughes. (Hogarth, 345 pages, $26.)
The cover blurbs of “Orchid and the Wasp” speak of the heroine as “a magnificent and assured creation” and “three times smarter than everyone around her.” Perhaps. But Gael Foess also is quite despicable. She’s smart, but she believes that entitles her to take shortcuts. She uses the people closest to her with breathtaking amorality.
Caoilinn Hughes has signaled in interviews that she made Gael intentionally loathsome, daring readers to embrace a female protagonist who is unlikable and exploitative. Again intentionally, Hughes provides no back story for Gael’s behavior; she just is. Neither is there much of a story here as there are setups and consequences, revealed over time.
Gael is the oldest child in a dysfunctional yet successful family. Her father is a financier, her mother an orchestra conductor, her brother a tragic cipher. With a murky justification of acting on their behalf, she nonetheless tosses them under various buses. There is a theme: Is it really exploitation if the loser isn’t aware of his loss? Well, yes. The implication is that if Gael were male, we’d excuse or admire her. Hughes’ point isn’t without merit, but her insistence in presenting Gael without nuance results in her coming across as just another of society’s barnacles. If she were male, we’d be repulsed by him.
Still, the question: Is there something to be gained by meeting a female character so wholly self-absorbed, so unfailingly cold? Maybe so, if only for the experience. Yet for all the hard work Hughes has done here — and she’s a compelling writer — she pulls her punch in literally the penultimate paragraph, when Gael, stealing away in the dawn, “doesn’t zip her suitcase shut, so as not to wake anyone.” What? Gael? Ah, Hughes really does want us to like her, after all. Too late.
The Wild Inside
By Jamey Bradbury. (William Morrow, 290 pages, $25.99.)
Novels about strong, stubborn teenage girls coming of age in wilderness settings have been big hits lately — Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling” and Emily Fridlund’s “History of Wolves” come to mind. Alaska writer Jamey Bradbury’s debut novel shares some things with them — isolated, alienated, wily and willful young protagonists; menacing, mysterious plot twists; and the utmost importance of a wild setting in shaping the story.
Bradbury’s novel, while extremely well written and perfectly paced, is not quite as literary as the others, but in some ways it’s a better read. Teenager Tracy lives in a remote Alaskan cabin with her father, an aging Iditarod racer; her shy younger brother; and the ghost of her mysterious mother, recently fatally struck by a truck while walking along a remote road in the middle of the night. When two strangers make their way, separately, to the family’s home and the forest that surrounds it, where Tracy spends most of her time, dark events unfold.
While the story has a strong element of the supernatural that may alienate some readers, it is primarily a romantic psychological thriller whose unexpected denouement is at once foreseeable and shocking. Tracy’s story is haunting, and makes for an addictive read.