REVIEW: Wonder Girls by Catherine Jones (Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling)

by |May 25, 2012

Catherine Jones’ debut novel, Wonder Girls, is an inspirational and at times heartbreaking story about love and friendship, ambition and loss. More importantly, it’s a celebration of GIRL-POWER. This is the kind of read that will have woman of all ages raising their fists in solidarity and saying things like “I am Woman, here me roar!” or similar. Menfolk beware. This book may make you a teensy bit disappointed in yourself for being born with a Y chromosome.

The prologue of Wonder Girls takes place in 1937, in a hospital and (deliciously) in the dead of the night. Cecily Stirling is 14 years old and about to change the course of her life with a spot of covert baby-stealing.

It’s a pretty amazing prologue, virtually dripping with atmosphere and mystery. I defy anyone to read it and not find themselves desperate to know what comes next.

In fact, what comes next is an abrupt leap forward into the future. Suddenly, Cecily has become “Ceci”, an elderly woman who lives alone in a big house after the death of her partner. When a neighbourhood woman in her thirties befriends Ceci and starts asking questions about her past, it soon becomes clear that Ceci is an old lady with quite an interesting story to tell.

We readers already know this, of course. Ceci stole a baby back in the prologue, remember? Obviously a stunt like that is bound to have dramatic consequences. And yet before we can discover the fate of the stolen baby we are drawn into a different (but no less compelling) story.

This story takes us back to 1928 and 16-year-old Ida Gaze, a determined young girl who decides she’s going to swim the Bristol Channel. Everyone says it can’t be done, especially not by a mere schoolgirl. But this is the “Roaring Twenties” and the world is starting to change. Things that were once unthinkable are suddenly becoming possible. Women are flying aeroplanes. Even more shockingly, they are wearing trousers! And so with the support of her best friend, Freda Voyle, and inspired by her idol, Amelia Earhart, Ida Gaze sets out to prove everyone wrong.

Ida and Freda are more than just your standard BFFs. They share a close bond, so inseparable as to be co-dependant. They live in a small village in which people tend to gossip. Most people in the village know that Ida and Freda’s relationship goes deeper than just friendship (particularly on Freda’s side). But this was an era in which such things were not openly acknowledged.

Wonder Girls is a richly detailed and meticulously crafted novel. Catherine Jones executes flawless shifts in narrative and timeline in order to construct dual stories that gradually begin to dovetail in rather unexpected ways. This is that special kind of storytelling in which seemingly unconnected threads are drawn slowly together and tied up so neatly and satisfyingly that it seems like magic. It’s one of those novels in which everything plays out just right. The pacing is perfect, each part of the story unfolding exactly as it ought to and yet somehow never quite in the way that you predicted it would.

But where Catherine Jones really excels is in portraying the strong relationships between her characters and conveying the curious blend of pain and joy that comes from truly loving someone, whether it’s a best friend, a kindred spirit, an adopted daughter or the love of your life. Catherine Jones skilfully maps out a journey of love through a series of transformations, beginning with the fierce and all-encompassing love that is forged between childhood best friends and then moving on to explore the heartsick longing as friendship deepens into unrequited love. She covers basically every kind of love that can exist between women, from the selfless love of motherhood to the strong bonds of sisterhood, the fluttering euphoria of first love to the tragedy of love that goes unspoken.

Wonder Girls is a story that is at times tragic and painful, while at others triumphant and uplifting. It’s a story about best friends who were bold and fearless in the pursuit of their dreams. At the same time, it’s a story about an old woman who stole a baby when she was young and then spent decades trying to solve the mystery behind the baby’s mother.

But most of all, Wonder Girls is a story about girls being awesome. I’d recommend it for any little girl who has ever dreamt big, or for anyone (boy or girl) who has ever cherished a dream that seemed impossible.

Overall, this is a very  impressive debut from an author I’ll be looking out for in future.

Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling

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From the publisher: ‘Don’t follow the crowd,’ she’d be telling schoolgirls at the swimming baths. ‘Follow your own star and when you have achieved your goal you will have that with you for the rest of your life…’

In 1928, a plucky young Welsh girl named Ida Gaze swims the Bristol Channel with the help of her best friend Freda and the inspiration of her heroine Amelia Earhart.

In 1937, on the instructions of the matron, a young skivvy at a grand maternity hospital in London smuggles out an orphaned baby on one of the coldest nights of the year.

Now, in a small town in Wales, an old lady named Ceci pieces together these stories and is about to discover the surprising ways in which they link to her own. It begins with two girls in the twenties who left their small Welsh village for the Big Smoke, feeling that the world was changing and everything was possible…

About the Author

After studying English Literature at universities in Wales and the USA, Catherine Jones worked as a journalist in print, TV and PR. She was born in England, has lived in many different countries, and now makes her home in Wales. She works in the sale room of an auction house and thinks mainly about writing, inspired by the fascinating letters, diaries and trinkets that her work brings her into contact with.

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