Postal Reading group
September 2021
Notes on the book A Gathering light by Jennifer Donnelly

A Gathering light, or on the other side of the Atlantic, A Northern light by Jennifer Donnelly is another one of those books which I was doubtful about when it first arrived, but which, happily, turned out to be perfectly readable. Although looking very much like adult fiction, this turns out to be a young adult, ‘coming of age’ book.

The story begins with Mattie about to sit her exams, the Board of Regents, in order to take up the scholarship she had been offered to Barnard College. However, her father needs her around the house and on the farm, and Mattie herself soon feels the conflict between her desire to become a writer, her family and a surprising first romance. When she is handed some letters at the hotel where she is working, her dilemma seems to be mirrored by that of the drowned young woman.

Although aimed at the young adult market, this is a book which tries to cross genres, with elements of historical fiction, and romance, not to mention a little bit of true crime added in for good measure! While finding the book readable and well written, I nevertheless have reservations: the sheer number of themes which the author tries to tackle must be top of that list! In addition to the conflicts which Mattie feels, and which must be familiar to any teenager ‘coming of age’, Donnelly tries to cover the role of women in society, familial responsibility, poverty and racism. Although these do fit together reasonably well, I believe that the book would have been better had it concentrated on just one theme.

Of course, the ‘coming of age’ story is in a crowded genre, and to stand out a book needs to be truly exceptional. Even the ‘bookish’, misunderstood girl fighting against the conservative views of society is stereotypical enough. The divagation into other genres is clearly an attempt to make the book stand out, but some previous books in this group have shown the technique often doesn’t work.

In this particular case, some aspects of the plot seem rather contrived and some of the characters, especially the minor ones, are less well drawn. The rather surprising romance with Royal is a good case in point. While he was seen as a good prospect, it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely match. Royal couldn’t understand what Mattie saw in books, and likewise Mattie did not share his enthusiasm for crop yields. To be fair, Mattie herself was slow to see this as a romance, but it seems incredible that she should be equally slow to call it off. When relations started talking about her trousseau that should surely have put her off. Even seeing the reality of married family life in the form Minnie’s howling babies didn’t seem to deter her as I was expecting it would. Instead it was only suggestions of infidelity and Royal’s desire to gain land at the expense of others (some things apparently never change) which makes Mattie question his motives and her desire to marry.

While social attitudes towards women seems to have been a theme in many of this year’s choices, thinking, for example, of Jojo Moyes’ The giver of stars, it is interesting how society, or at least the men, apparently want it both ways in this book. On the one hand women were regarded as the weaker sex and their place is in the home, cooking and raising children, yet Mattie is still expected to work alongside the men on the farm. You can’t have it both ways, although that doesn’t stop Mattie’s father from trying.

The comparison with The giver of stars is not entirely inappropriate either. Both are concerned with the power of books to change lives, and in that regard the present book does seem the more literary of the two; certainly the author seems to do quite a lot of ‘title dropping’, mentioning several well known works of literature in English. Given Mattie’s frustration with unrealistic books with a happy ending, it seems ironic that the author has provided one here. However, while it might be more realistic for Mattie to end up unhappily married, contemplating a life of domestic drudgery, and trying to raise a family on a pittance, I can’t imagine many people wanting to read that!

While obvious parallels have been drawn between Mattie and the drowned girl, I believe that these have been overstated. While reading the letters may have done a little to pursuade Mattie that she would be better off going to college (an education won’t let you down like men will), there are too many obvious differences. Firstly, Mattie wasn’t pregnant; she called off the engagement through her own choice and, despite his questionable motives, Royal did seem intent on going through with the marriage.

There are other aspects which seem equally improbable. For example, in her exams, Mattie had to sit papers in mathematics and science. If true, this would perhaps make her education rather more enlightened than many here in Britain. Even for men, at that time, maths and science were seen as poor relations to languages and the arts; an attitude which still persists in parts today. Mind you, given that the mathematics seemed little more than arithmetic, I really can’t blame Mattie for disliking it.

On the other hand, there are occasional amusing touches, the word duels, and the word of the day appearing at the head of each chapter being prime examples. While some of Mattie’s made up words really do sound contrived, the author found plenty of genuine unusual words, not all of which I knew. Their way of dealing with the unwanted attentions from the ‘gentleman’ at table six was equally amusing, even if I’m not sure that all the girls would have been able to swim.

In conclusion, while this is a well written book, and a reasonable enough story, I have lingering reservations. There are simply too many aspects to the story for the book to be really effective. Similarly, the crossovers between historical fiction, romance and true crime don’t help. The fact that this is but one book in the crowded young adult market makes it difficult for this book to really stand out. Despite some amusing touches, parts of the plot seem too contrived to be really believable. For all that, it does make you ask “do you believe in happy endings?” Mattie may not have done, but she got one anyway.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler