Review: In Defense of Witches by Mona Chollet

This book was perhaps more about feminism and less about witches than the description led me to believe, but very interesting and fun to read.

What it’s about

From the aforementioned Goodreads description:

Centuries after the infamous witch hunts that swept through Europe and America, witches continue to hold a unique fascination for many: as fairy tale villains, practitioners of pagan religion, as well as feminist icons. Witches are both the ultimate victim and the stubborn, elusive rebel. But who were the women who were accused and often killed for witchcraft? What types of women have centuries of terror censored, eliminated, and repressed?

Celebrated feminist writer Mona Chollet explores three types of women who were accused of witchcraft and persecuted: the independent woman, since widows and celibates were particularly targeted; the childless woman, since the time of the hunts marked the end of tolerance for those who claimed to control their fertility; and the elderly woman, who has always been an object of at best, pity, and at worst, horror. Examining modern society, Chollet concludes that these women continue to be harrassed and oppressed. Rather than being a brief moment in history, the persecution of witches is an example of society’s seemingly eternal misogyny, while women today are direct heirs to those who were hunted down and killed for their thoughts and actions.

With fiery prose and arguments that range from the scholarly to the cultural, In Defense of Witches seeks to unite the mythic image of the witch with modern women who seek to live their lives on their own terms.

My thoughts

I mention this every time I review nonfiction, but I really don’t read a lot of nonfiction. This one grabbed my attention with that awesome cover and title—I love reading about witches (fictional or no). While Chollet does keep connecting both historical and modern-day witches to the issues she addresses in In Defense of Witches, the book is mainly an exploration of feminist issues.

The introduction has most of the history of witch persecutions found in the book, explaining how certain women—usually childless, elderly, or independent ones—were targeted historically. Chollet reminds the reader of what can easily be forgotten with the casual, sometimes lighthearted treatment the witch hunts receive: countless innocent women were tortured and killed for no reason but subjugation. In the following chapters, Chollet discusses how societies are still persecuting women for choosing to be independent, choosing not to be mothers, or just aging naturally. In Defense of Witches is smart, humorous, and, like so many feminist works, equal parts inspiring and infuriating. It touches on many different topics while weaving witches into the narrative. I really appreciated getting both French and American perspectives on women’s issues (and witchiness).

The book is well-written and researched, and it’s translated from French beautifully. If you’re looking for an in-depth history of witches or witch trials, this is not the book for you, but if you’d like a general overview of feminist thought, check it out. Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for my copy in exchange for this honest review.


Review: Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor

It takes guts to reimagine a beloved, well known classic like The Great Gatsby, and it takes a lot of skill to pull it off beautifully. Clearly, Jillian Cantor has both in spades.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

On a sultry August day in 1922, Jay Gatsby is shot dead in his West Egg swimming pool. To the police, it appears to be an open-and-shut case of murder/suicide when the body of George Wilson, a local mechanic, is found in the woods nearby.

Then a diamond hairpin is discovered in the bushes by the pool, and three women fall under suspicion. Each holds a key that can unlock the truth to the mysterious life and death of this enigmatic millionaire.

Daisy Buchanan once thought she might marry Gatsby—before her family was torn apart by an unspeakable tragedy that sent her into the arms of the philandering Tom Buchanan.

Jordan Baker, Daisy’s best friend, guards a secret that derailed her promising golf career and threatens to ruin her friendship with Daisy as well.

Catherine McCoy, a suffragette, fights for women’s freedom and independence, and especially for her sister, Myrtle Wilson, who’s trapped in a terrible marriage.

Their stories unfold in the years leading up to that fateful summer of 1922, when all three of their lives are on the brink of unraveling. Each woman is pulled deeper into Jay Gatsby’s romantic obsession, with devastating consequences for all of them.

Jillian Cantor revisits the glittering Jazz Age world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, retelling this timeless American classic from the women’s perspective. Beautiful Little Fools is a quintessential tale of money and power, marriage and friendship, love and desire, and ultimately the murder of a man tormented by the past and driven by a destructive longing that can never be fulfilled.

My thoughts

In my high school American lit class, I really didn’t expect to love The Great Gatsby, mainly because I’d seen parts of the Redford movie and wasn’t impressed, but also because I was determined to dislike anything my annoying (male, vaguely chauvinistic) teacher adored. I ended up loving it for all of its flawed characters and the relentless hopelessness of all of their struggles, and because Fitzgerald was just a darn good writer. Though integral to the story—what would Gatsby be without his obsession with Daisy?—the women of the novel really feel like unexplored side characters. But this review isn’t about The Great Gatsby!

Jillian Cantor set out to retell Fitzgerald’s masterpiece through the eyes of the women: Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, and Catherine McCoy (poor Myrtle Wilson’s sister). Beautiful Little Fools starts at the beginning, when Daisy first met Jay Gatsby, before he was a self-made rich playboy and before she was married to a born-rich playboy. Gatsby himself becomes more of a side character here, as we follow Daisy’s early life and see her motivations for the choices she makes. At the same time, we get Jordan’s backstory, and I absolutely love what Cantor has done to fill that character out. Catherine, really just a mention in Fitzgerald’s novel, is now a fully fleshed out character with an intriguing history who also manages to give us more insight into the mind of the mysterious Gatsby. Myrtle is still the tragic character that she always was, but through her sister she becomes more sympathetic. Beautiful Little Fools, since it’s told primarily by the ladies, touches more on issues of the time for for women, and less on the obsessions and pursuits of the men, and I’m here for it. Cantor does an excellent job of capturing the mood of the original and I had no trouble at all feeling immersed in the time and place.

A brand new character to this imaginative take is Detective Frank Charles, who, despite being hired by a shady character to look in to what really happened to Jay Gatsby, is one of the good guys. He loves his wife and has pure motivations for what he does, and the whole mystery storyline of who really killed Jay Gatsby was a lot of fun for me as a reader.

I’m not going to give any spoilers, but suffice to say Beautiful Little Fools presents an alternate ending for Gatsby (and everyone else). Cantor has brilliantly created an alternate middle, too, as good old Nick is now just a character, no longer our eyes and ears, Gatsby himself and his driving obsession is shown in a more magnified light, and there’s a whole new take on the central romance of the original novel. I will say that, for most of Beautiful Little Fools, I despised Daisy just as much as I did while reading Gatsby, but Jillian Cantor managed to give me some new feelings, too.

I had never read anything by Jillian Cantor prior to this book, and I was very impressed with her writing. Not only does she pay homage to the classic novel she’s reimagining, she skillfully weaves together historical fiction, multiple POVs, and mystery. I listened to the audio version of Beautiful Little Fools, and really loved the author’s note at the end, where Cantor talks about her own experiences with The Great Gatsby and what she was hoping to accomplish with her retelling. I definitely plan to seek out more from this author.

I will also say that this book should work well for readers who haven’t read (or didn’t like) The Great Gatsby. On it’s own, Beautiful Little Fools is a great historical fiction/mystery that will appeal to anyone who likes that sort of story.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for my digital copy in exchange for this honest review.