Book Review Time: The Hazel Wood

When you hear the words, “Once upon a time…” certain images immediately come to mind. A beautiful princess in peril. A grizzly stepmother/witch, the cause. A dashing prince to the rescue. An immense castle strategically placed to capture the village’s best views. A nearby forest, home to foe and woodland dwarf alike. Throw in some poisoned produce and true love’s kiss as its antidote, and you have the basic ingredients for a fairy tale. But what happens when a fairy tale gets turned on its head? What happens when the story’s standard formula is subverted? This is the spellbinding scenario presented in Melissa Albert’s debut novel, The Hazel Wood. 

Alice Proserpine and her mother, Ella, move around…a lot. It’s hard to settle down in one place for any length of time when bad luck seems to follow you wherever you go. And Alice and Ella have had their share of it. The lack of stability is hard on Alice. There are moments when she wishes she could live with her grandmother, the reclusive writer, Althea Proserpine. Several decades back, Althea wrote a book of dark and sinister fairy tales called Tales from the Hinterland. The book garnered a great deal of acclaim and has maintained a dedicated cult following since its initial release. Alice has never met her grandmother, nor has she read her work. And despite Alice’s best efforts in researching Althea Proserpine, existing information is sparse. Those who knew the celebrated author have either gone missing or have met untimely ends. Prying information out of her mother is futile. Ella severed ties with Althea shortly after Alice’s birth, and chooses to keep mum on the subject. So for seventeen years, Althea has remained a mystery to Alice; a much fantasized and revered figure. When a letter arrives announcing Althea’s death, Ella cryptically proclaims that this will mark an end to their bad luck. But she is greatly mistaken. Returning home from school one day, Alice discovers that Ella has been kidnapped by a menacing group of individuals bearing a strong resemblance to characters in Althea’s fairy tales. She’s not entirely sure where her mother has been taken to, but she has one possible place in her sights, The Hazel Wood.

The Hazel Wood is a vast estate where Althea Proserpine had lived in seclusion for many years. It’s hidden away in upstate New York with no clear address nor any specific directions leading to it. Alice has a feeling that if she can find her grandmother’s home, she will also find Ella. But Alice will need help in her journey. Lucky for her, her friend, Ellery Finch, happens to be an Althea Proserpine super-fan, with a wealth of knowledge concerning the author and Tales from the Hinterland. Ellery joins Alice on a hunt to locate The Hazel Wood. But as they draw nearer to the estate, its surrounding forest reveals a hidden world of disturbing fairy tales, peculiar characters, and a deep, dark secret that will rock Alice to her very core.

I loved loved loved this book. It has all of the elements that make for a great read. Fascinating characters, an amazing plot, mystery and danger, humor as a counter-balance, a touch of romance, and a powerful message that ties everything together at the end. Although the book centers around fairy tales and magic, Albert manages to address real life issues such as race, depression, and feelings of isolation, as well. Alice is a complicated yet likeable character. There are so many holes in her history, and often her memory fails her. So, as a reader, you sympathize with her struggle to piece together the fragments of her past in an effort to make sense of her current circumstances. The mother-daughter connection that Alice shares with Ella is heart-warming and provides much of the driving force behind the narrative. But, ultimately, The Hazel Wood is about rewriting your story and reclaiming your sense of self. It’s about not letting outside forces dictate who or what you are; breaking free of the constraints and discovering your own power. Now that’s a great message.


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