In many of the books that I read, the setting becomes a character. Maybe the world is fictional but based on a real city so I can picture that skyline, those sidewalks, the noise that penetrates even through closed apartment windows. Sometimes an author details so vividly the home or office building where their main characters spend much time that I feel like I've walked through that front door before or sat at that conference room table. The overarching theme in Julianna Baggott's Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is 'home,' either searching for one, dreaming of one, returning to one, etc. and my favorite parts of the book are her descriptions of the many places where Harriet Wolf has lived and survived before returning, finally, to her parents' house outside Baltimore, where she lives until she dies in the same room where she was literally born.
Perhaps that sounds morbid, but Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is actually a beautiful story of four women, three generations of the Wolf family. Harriet's story is told in a flashback diary entry way while her daughter, Eleanor, and her granddaughters, Ruth and Tilton, narrate from a present day when Harriet is no longer alive. The present day chapters are interesting, but I'll admit that it was Harriet's story that kept me captivated.
The main storyline of the book focuses on Harriet Wolf as the famous writer. She wrote a series of six books that have a cult following and there are many devoted fans who believe that Harriet wrote a seventh book that is hidden inside the familial home. Part of the novel is the 'search' for this seventh book but most of it is just delving into Harriet's past so that her family knows where she came from and why she was the way that she was. There were so many twists and turns in this woman's life and she overcame so much, from lost love to growing up in a home for mentally disabled children to being an unexpected single mother later in life; these delicate tales that Baggott shares as Harriet almost have heartbeat of their own.
Early in the book, there was a passage that stayed with me:
"Each molecule of story is a universe--grotesque and stunning, all sunlit steam and engines laboring in the chests of trains and creatures with small pink hands and horns...."A little further down, Baggott as Harriet writes,
"I hope, my dear readers, that your hearts haven't stiffened, rind-tough, or gone dowdy with flab--poor neglected hearts, a tragic crime. May you keep yourselves trimmed--hair, nails, suit jackets--but untamed within. (Be curious)." (Page 72)
So much is said and so much can be learned from just those few lines.
It took Baggott almost 20 years to write this book, which is easy to believe after reading it. Every story loops back around in some way, every mention of a historic event is deliberate and meaningful to the story and when I finished Harriet Wolf, a book that had an unresolved ending to a certain extent, it didn't feel like there were loose ends. I feel like every scene in the book probably played out in Baggott's mind hundreds of times before finalized. It's not easy to write a book about downtrodden events and unfortunate individuals without being depressing but Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is full of compassion in the very best way.