Marian and Ben are a young couple, deeply in love and living in Ireland in the 1950’s. Unfortunately Marian is Catholic and Ben Jewish, so the chances of their living a successful and happy life together are not likely as neither of their parents would endorse such a marriage. They do end up getting married, though, despite the obstacles against them, but not before Marian gives up the baby they conceived before marriage for adoption, as she is convinced by her uncle and priest that Ben and his family will not accept her if she reveals that she got pregnant before he asked for her hand in marriage. Marian is told that this baby, a boy named Adrian, was given to a nice Irish couple that could not have a child of their own. Years later, after Ben and Marian are happily married with a daughter, Marian discovers that Adrian actually has been in an orphanage all this time, and she goes to visit him there. Everything in Ben and Marian’s life changes from that point on.
This was an interesting read for me, because the premise sounded compelling but the execution was different from what I was expecting, but at the same time I couldn’t seem to pull away from the story. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it until the very end – I kept going back and forth between love and hate, and I know that’s strange but I truly couldn’t decide my feeling on the book until the very end, and even now I’m still not completely sure where I stand.
I started off with love. The characters definitely drew me in, and I loved the complexity of their different religious backgrounds and how at that time in Ireland, it was absolutely not OK for a Catholic and a Jew to marry. It was inspiring how these two people came together anyway, despite everything trying to pull them apart, and I liked the characters of Marian and Ben and I loved their relationship.
Once the book moved into the time when Marian discovered Adrian was at the orphanage for his entire life (I think he was eleven or twelve years old at that point), things got weird for me. The book would switch perspectives from Marian or Ben to Adrian and the transitions were not as smooth as they could have been. In addition, Adrian suffered an awful childhood which included abuse in many forms, and this abuse was detailed to the point that my heart just hurt so badly. I felt so, so awful reading these scenes and it made me incredibly angry at Marian for putting him in that situation. I couldn’t forgive her for her dishonesty in not telling Ben about his son from the beginning, and I couldn’t forgive the one awful mistake she made in putting him up for adoption that caused Adrian to have such an incredibly difficult, sad life and turn into a pretty vile person as a result.
I was hopeful that the novel would end on something like a happy note, but unfortunately that wasn’t really the case. While there is some hope at the end, it is abundantly clear that Adrian is a damaged person because of what happened to him throughout his childhood, and I had no confidence that he could ever truly recover from the abuse he suffered and several traumatic events that he experienced as a child. It was truly heartbreaking and sad to read and the novel just put me in such a melancholy mood.
So when I finished The Whipping Club, I was tempted to feel that I did not enjoy the book, that I wouldn’t recommend it, and it was overall a bad experience for me. But thinking deeper about my experience with the novel, I did like a lot about the book – specifically the characters and the unique premise – which causes me to feel somewhat positively about it. I’m still sort of in this in-between place about it, to be honest, so I’m not sure that I can really recommend this one. But I will say that it is certainly discussion-worthy!