‘Wendy, Darling’ is a feminist exploration of the aftermath of JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan‘. It’s a dark tale, looking at the price of growing up, what is means to be a parent, and how society treats those who don’t conform. It also explores some of the issues within the original ‘Peter Pan’ seen through a modern lens, especially around the role of women and racism towards indigenous peoples. The flow isn’t always there, but for those who enjoy a darker story it’s a worthwhile read.
Neverland is a children’s paradise, perfect for the boy who never grows up. Wendy, on the other hand, has given up Neverland, and finds growing up inevitable. By the time Peter returns for her, Wendy has married and had a daughter of her own – but Peter refuses to believe that the adult woman is Wendy. Instead, he steals her daughter Jane. Desperate to get her daughter back, Wendy sets off for Neverland once more. In returning, Wendy must confront some painful truths about Neverland – and about herself. There’s a darkness in the heart of the island, and for all his charisma, there’s darkness in Peter too.
The story is told from two perspectives – Jane’s and Wendy’s – and across two timelines. There’s the present, with Jane and Wendy in Neverland, but also flashbacks to Wendy’s life in the years after leaving Neverland the first time and the impact that had. In many ways, the flashback scenes are the more compelling. Neverland completely upended the trajectory of Wendy’s life, and the lasting struggles it left her with are stark. Her brothers quickly forgot Neverland, but Wendy never did – and in her desperation to hold on, she managed to alienate herself from everyone around her. The loneliness of being the only one to remember something, and the way it makes them doubt their own mind, is brilliantly – if somewhat horrifically – portrayed. At one point, Wendy even ends up instituitonalised – this being the early 20th century, where women who did not conform were shut away – and the brutality of this is again not shied away from.
Wendy is by far the more interesting character. Enormously complex, she struggles with her identity and her feelings on Neverland. She’s gone from being forced to be a mother to the Lost Boys to choosing to be a mother herself – and then that child is torn away from her too. With the trauma of her life after leaving Neverland, her memories of it have become her comfort and shield against the world – so when Neverland itself becomes a source of trauma, she struggles to know where to turn. Wendy is flawed and struggling, but immensely strong, and she loves her daughter fiercely. Its impossible not to empathise with her. Her relationships with Mary and with her husband Ned are also delightful to read about. While the term is never used on page, Wendy reads as aromantic, possibly with an element of bisexuality. AC Wise does well to foreshadow this before Wendy mentions it on page, and its lovely to see her find happiness and companionship in a time less accepting of those identities.
Jane is a very typical child protagonist. Smart and plucky, she wants to be a scientist and fiercely stands up for herself. Unlike Wendy, who in the original ‘Peter Pan’ mostly went along with Peter and his ideas – only rebelling by leaving at the end – Jane fights from the start. She has no interest in being anyone’s mother, and she’d much rather look at rocks than spend all day play-fighting. Her rebellion makes Peter more malevolent, highlighting the darker side that was present in the original but far mote subtle. Jane’s sections are made more readable by the inclusion of Timothy, one of the Lost Boys who has grown tired of Peter’s games – and scared of Peter as a consequence. Jane is kind-hearted and caring, and her interactions with Timothy are lovely. Unlike Wendy, Jane doesn’t stand out as a character – she reads much like a wide variety of children’s book protagonists – but she makes an interesting counterpoint to her more complex mother.
The ending is powerful, with clear messages about motherhood and what it means to grow up. There are a couple of minor irritations – Jane’s characterisation slips a bit at the climax, becoming a little too subserviant – but overall it works well.
The main issue with ‘Wendy, Darling’ is that it takes a risk by telling two simultaneous stories, and one is so much more gripping and complex that it makes the other seem a little weak. The flashback scenes are probably intended to be a minor part, but to me their story is more compelling than the main plotline. I would happily read an entire book just dedicated to the psychological impact of Neverland on Wendy and her life, and how she navigates the aftermath. This definitely says more about me as a reader than it does the book, but it colours my ability to look at it objectively.
Overall, ‘Wendy, Darling’ is a clever look at the story of ‘Peter Pan’ and what might have happened next. Unlike the original, it’s definitely not a children’s book, but it’s an intriguing addition to the world of ‘Peter Pan’ spinoffs. Recommended for existing ‘Peter Pan’ fans, along with those who enjoy tales about motherhood, women who survive, and psychology.
Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 1st June 2021