Thursday, January 5, 2012

BR: A Northern Light

by Jennifer Donnelly

UK title: A Gathering Light

I have legit been meaning to get around to reading this for ages, especially after falling in love with Revolution last January. Linna's very awesome and positive response got me to finally stop mulling around and reading it.

Summary (goodreads)

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

Set in 1906 against a backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original.

My Expectations: high because of my love for Revolution, but I was nervous I wouldn't like it, which is why it took me so long to get around to reading it.
Delivery: Once I got into the whole setting and style of it, it was great. Some parts I didn't like, but overall, very pleasant :)
Put-down-ability: 4.5/10

My Thoughts

This is my effort to write a short review, and hopefully actually succeeding (I didn't).

Oh Jennifer Donnelly, how do you do this to me?

Mattie Gokey is the type of YA heroine that doesn’t get enough press. She doesn’t have crazy magical powers, hunt demons, or have an unnervingly attractive boy to fall back on. She has her family, her promises, her words, and her dreams. She’s afraid of getting stuck in her small town life and she’s the type of character who effortlessly becomes someone you care about; the way she tells her story, it broke my heart and gave me hope at the same time.

Donnelly manages to weave so many themes into this ambitious and well-deserved Printz book. The power and limits to choices and obligations, feminism, racism, sexism, inequality, and pursuing passions versus settling for second. And within this bubble, she includes a murder mystery as well, which I’ll admit I just never really got. I understand that Grace Brown’s murder was tragic, but I never really connected with it in the book despite the major role it played. I found myself skimming many of her letters and I think it was the only aspect of the book I’m not gushing about. I just found myself more invested in Mattie’s story, and I think I would have loved the book the same if the murder didn’t even play a role, because of how splendidly Donnelly wrote Mattie’s voice and how vivid and vital the role of setting played. Secondary characters were simply a dream, there isn’t a stereotype in site as each character, no matter his or her role, was complex and real.

There’s so much to say about this novel, there’s so much richness in this historical fiction that really makes it come alive and it’s refreshing and inspiring at the same time, to watch a heroine in a predicament that’s almost unimaginable in today’s society finding her way through her muddled life and never giving up and taking the easy path. The following part in this book stuck out to me, but mostly because of how much I agreed with it. I always concede that characters can be self-centered, but Ms Wilcox, her teacher says: “You are many, many things, Mathilda Gokey, but selfish isn’t one of them.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Rating in HP Terms: Exceeds Expectations
Recommended for: fans of YA historical fiction that is totally wonderful, or books that just sweep you off your feet.
Acknowledgements: show some heart! 2/5 for sounding like a scripted Oscar acceptance speech.

8.5/ 10 – because it was so excellent, minus the part about the murder which yes, I wanted to love and totally fawn over, but I just didn’t. There are books that build in your head and also books that fizzle out, but this one is the former. Sometimes I’ll write gushing reviews and think back later “what was I thinking? I can barely remember the plot of that book!” but I know this won’t be the case. A Northern Light is a beautifully told story about hardship and dreams and things that matter the most, whatever they may be.

PS~ I know this seems totally redundant and I look like a total and complete idiot for not reading more carefully. Basically A Northern Light has two timelines, the chapters with a dictionary word in the title takes place about four months previous in the spring, working up to the time when Mattie gets a job at the hotel. The untitled chapters are more ‘present day,’ taking place after Mattie has already worked at the hotel and Grace Brown was murdered. Just in case someone ended up as confused as I was..yeah..

source: purchased
author website / twitter


  1. I need to reread this one. I read it after I read Revolution (which I LOVED hardcore) and I expected something more like that, but I didn't get it... So I liked this one, but didn't love it, and I think I did the book a disservice and really need to revisit it.

    But I do remember thinking that it was really rather amazing & needed its own chance.

  2. Like Ashley, I read this after loving Revolution but didn't like this one as much. The plot around the murder was actually more interesting to me, perhaps due to my love of the movie A Place in the Sun.

  3. Oh, gosh. I'm so glad you loved this one, because although I read and ADORED Revolution (Virgil! *swoons*) I keep drawing back when I look at this one. Now I won't be able to keep ignoring it. Great review, Audrey!

  4. Okay, I totally had to look this up all over again since it was a long time ago that I read this. BUT, the relevance of the murder is that it was based on real historical events. Also, I remembered that A Northern Light was always compared to the novel, An American Tragedy because the novel had also been about the murder.

    I kinda want to reread this now!

  5. This has been been on my list to read for a while, and similar to you it's taken me a while to get around to it. But I'm really interested in the themes of the book you mentioned: feminism, racism, sexism and inequality. So I will have to keep this in mind, and get around to actually reading it, haha!

    P.S: Congrats on finishing first semester of university!

  6. Great review! I agree on just about every point, particularly your opinion of Grace Brown's story. As I said in my review, the only reason I appreciated it was because it helped Mattie develop, but that's it.


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