Alyssa Gardner is a descendent of Alice Liddell, the young woman who inspired Lewis Carroll to write about a girl following a white rabbit down a hole into Wonderland. Unfortunately, names that start with A aren’t the only things that run in the family. The women in her family have suffered from mental illness for generations, and she is worried that she may be next. When she starts hearing bugs and flower talking, she knows she has to keep it to herself, or else risk ending up in a mental institution like her mother. She doesn’t even tell her best friend or her secret crush, Jeb. But one day on a visit to the institution, she realizes that her mother is hearing the same things she is, and of course if it was only in her head, then how would her mother hear it too? As it turns out, the family has been cursed since the original Alice went down that rabbit hole and messed everything up. After an episode at the mental institution her father decides that they need to move forward with a procedure that Alyssa worries will leave her mother with irreparable brain damage. With the clock ticking, Alyssa must figure out how to get to Wonderland, so that she can right the original Alice’s wrongs, thus breaking the family curse and saving her mother. When she finally figures out how to get there, with a quick thought, she inadvertently summons Jeb to join her on her journey. There the two of them find that the Wonderland in Carroll’s story was not quite a perfect match to the real Wonderland. The real Wonderland is twisted and strange like the original, but is also far darker and mysterious.
When I talked about this book on my radio show, my t(w)een co-hosts gushed about how much they loved Alice in Wonderland (the movies and the books) and how they were dying to read this. Wonderland is fun and inviting in it’s nonsense and chaos. While there have been many adaptations of the Carroll story, some more successful than others, I do salute the author for her bravery in taking one of the most famous fantasy worlds and playing around with it. A. G. Howard does so with respect and creativity, and a penchant for goth. And she isn’t lazy about the world-building. While there are some familiar scenes from the original Wonderland, because the original story doesn’t quite match up with Alyssa’s experience of Wonderland, there’s quite a bit of description of the landscape, characters, and costumes. While the detailed descriptions generally served the story well, at other times they made the action drag a bit, especially towards the end where the story seemed like it might never wrap up.
Alyssa is an interesting character, especially in contract to Lewis Carroll’s Alice. First, the reason for their journeys differ significantly. The original Alice heads to Wonderland purely as a result of her boredom and curiosity, whereas Alyssa is on a mission to save her mother. This adds an urgency to Alyssa’s time in Wonderland. She’s aware that she has things to get done, right some wrongs, and figure out how to get home in order to prevent her mother from undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. Then there is the fact that the original Alice had no way of expecting the nonsense world of Wonderland, whereas Alyssa would have been much more prepared for the madness. And then of course there is the age and class difference. With the original Alice, she’s a child who flaunts her class privilege throughout her journey. With Alyssa, she’s a teen, who is not as well off as her ancestor, due in large part to her mother’s illness, and is much more withdrawn, at least in the beginning. During her journey in wonderland, she gains self-confidence and learns to stick up for herself.
Now there is a love triangle here, and I have mixed feelings about it. In a way it works. There’s the friend from back home who she has feelings for, but who has a girlfriend (who she hates), and she’s not sure how he feels about her, and then there’s the mysterious, fantastical man, who she’s known on some level (i.e. through her dreams) since she was a child. It works in a way, because it’s clear that she’s always committed to Jeb, not only because she cares about him, but also because he’s on this journey with her. Morpheus seems like more of a fantasy attraction for Alyssa. She’s drawn to him and attracted to him on some level, but it didn’t seem that she ever seriously considered him a contender for her heart on more than a friend level. That being said, there was a bit too much attention focused on these relationships for my liking. The romantic and/or sensuous scenes started to feel a bit forced the more they happened. And it didn’t help that both Jeb and Morpheus were so controlling and protective of Alyssa, in a way that felt patronizing at times. I didn’t really care if she ended up with either of these guys, as long as she was able to help her mother.
While I have some critiques, all-in-all this was a fun read, that was surprising, exciting, and imaginative. I enjoyed A. G. Howard’s writing and her world-building both in the fantasy world and in the contemporary setting, and I will definitely keep my eye out for future books from this author. I highly suggest this book to lovers of fairytale retellings, and especially to those who love detail-rich, contemporary fantasies.
Em’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: A. G. Howard
Publisher: Amulet Books (January 1, 2013)
Note: ARC received from publisher for honest review