The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Published by Viking Adult
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
This novel is absolutely everywhere right now so you probably already know what it’s about. But honestly, any summary I could provide wouldn’t do it justice, so in case you’re unfamiliar with the novel here is the publisher’s summary:
Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
The Invention of Wings is a sweeping novel that takes place over the course of several decades, at a time in American history we aren’t too proud of as a nation, but also a time when great change was just around the corner. Sue Monk Kidd took this very real historical figure, Sarah Grimke, and fabricated another character (Handful) and created a truly remarkable piece of fiction. There was a lot to love about this book, and before I get into that, let me be honest about what was less than perfect about it for me.
I had a really difficult time connecting to most of the characters, if I’m being completely honest. While I admired Sarah, especially throughout the second half of the book, there was something missing for me in terms of how I was able to emotionally connect with her. With Handful my connection was more immediate and much easier, but as her life was so unimaginably awful and difficult, it was almost painful for me to feel that deep connection – like I wanted to shy away from it, her painful life was just too raw and real for me. And every member of the Grimke family besides Sarah was awful – it was difficult for me to read a book with SO many horrible people. I completely understand why these books are important and we need to read them to confront the truth of what our history as a nation is, but it was hard for me to love the book given my difficulty with the characters.
That said, The Invention of Wings is really a wonderful novel. There is SO much history here, and there is an author’s note at the end where she explains what is real and what is her imagination, and so much of what is in the book is based on real events! Many of the scenes in the book that were so painful to read were inspired by historical events that the author learned about while doing research for the novel. Obviously, it’s difficult to read about the specific ways slaves were abused, which I understand is the point – we must confront this stuff and accept that we as a people did this to other human beings. But it’s not easy to read, I’m telling you.
I loved how much time the book covered, as you really get to see the changes in society over the course of the novel. Things don’t end with perfection, but it’s clear that we’re getting somewhere as a country by the time Sarah is an older woman. She worked tirelessly in her adult years for equality of both slaves and women, and I loved seeing how that work affected the country in positive ways through her lifetime.
Ultimately this is a story about two very different women, growing up in the same household but who couldn’t possibly have more opposite experiences, and the strength and power both women found within themselves over the course of their lifetimes. Sarah and Handful couldn’t be more different, but in the end they spend most of their lives searching for the same thing – freedom and the power that comes from that freedom. Whether or not they find it, and how they attempt to do so, is sort of the point of the book.
Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is gorgeous, she truly brings this time period and the story alive with her words. I really enjoyed the book in many ways and I can see why it’s getting such praise. Even though I didn’t fall in love with the characters, this is an extremely powerful story and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.