Full disclosure: I was given an ARC of this book by NetGallery in exchange for an honest review.
Growing up, I loved watching the animated Disney version of Peter Pan. I enjoyed seeing how he defeats Captain Hook. Also, he could fly! Since then, I realized that there are many ways to reinterpret the text. In fact, there have been plenty of retellings like the ABC TV show Once Upon a Time that explore both popular and obscure aspects of the famed story. Some soar even further like today’s subject Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan by Liz Michalski, and it does so with flying colors.
Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan is a dark and modern reimagining of the beloved story, which involves a woman who has to confront Peter Pan in order to save her daughter. Holly Darling – the granddaughter of Wendy (yes, that Wendy) – runs a successful skincare business. Her son, Jack, is happy and healthy, and she has moved on from the tragedy of her past. Everything seems to be going good until she gets a call that her daughter, Eden, who has been in a coma for nearly 10 years, has vanished from the estate where she’s been tucked away. Holly knows who did this: Peter Pan, who is not only real, but also more dangerous than anyone expects. Eden’s disappearance is bad for many reasons. Eden has a rare condition that makes her age rapidly (the irony of Peter being her father is not lost), which makes her blood all the more valuable. Holly has kept this a secret from Eden’s half-brother, Jack, who knows nothing about his sister or the essential role she plays in his life. She has no one to turn to. That is except her mother Jane, the only other person who knows that the story of the boy who never grew up is more than real, yet she refuses to accept that he’s anything but a hero. Desperate, Holly enlists a notorious ex-soldier named Christopher Cooke in hopes of rescuing Eden before it’s too late, or she may lose both kids.
There are many things that I love about this book. One of those things is how the characters in the original story are interpreted. Captain Hook is now Christopher Cooke, who is an ex-soldier-turned private investigator probably going through PTSD and has his own methods for getting the answers. He reminded me of Once Upon a Time’s portrayal of Captain Hook, just more vengeful. The Lost Boys are boys who are involved with drugs and disappear one by one. Neverland is “a place of shadows and shades,” which has rejected Peter Pan (p. 251).
Tinker Bell is now Tink, a fairy who’s trying to get herself free from Peter Pan’s abuse.
And of course, we do have to talk about the boy who never grew up. Several modern retellings depict him as a, for a lack of a better word, an asshole. This even includes the upcoming movie Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, where they have an overweight middle-aged man who’s supposed to be a clone of Peter Pan as the main antagonist (this has its own implications derived from the sad history of the actor who voiced Peter Pan in the Disney version). Of course, a good chunk of these go no farther than saying, “Look! We made Peter Pan into a bad guy!”
In Darling Girl’s case, Michalski gives Peter a more menacing portrayal. He’s controlling of others, so he can get what he wants. Tink refuses to go by the name Tinker Bell because that’s the name that Peter gave her. In addition, he’s predatory. He’ll prey on anybody who happens to be lonely. Holly was that way after losing her other son Isaac and her husband Robert in a car crash, and Jack was recovering in the hospital. Peter came by, or should I say let himself in without getting consent from Holly, and Eden was the result. It’s also revealed that he sells drugs to teenage boys in the seedier parts of London. In other words, Peter Pan is powerful and dangerous. To top it all off, Peter has grown up, but that doesn’t mean he’s mature. He still wants to feel his youth again. In order to do that, he has to have Eden’s blood.
The most unique part of the book is how it explores one of the most overlooked aspects of the story – motherhood. After all, the original tale involved Peter taking Wendy to Neverland, so she could be a mother figure to the Lost Boys. In this novel, Holly is a scientist and business woman who tries to control basically every part of her life. Various reviewers didn’t like her at first for that reason, but a lot of them eventually warmed up to her. For me, even though I didn’t agree with all of her actions, I understood where she came from, especially with her traumatic backstory. There were several parts, where I even yelled, “Just tell them about Eden already!”
Holly tries to do everything for her children, and yet, she learns like any other mother that one needs to let them fly in order to explore their own sense of self. Personally, if there was a film version of this, I’d like to see Cate Blanchett play Holly. I think she would do a great job.
Moreover, I have to commend the book for its pacing. It soars through like someone sprinkled with pixie dust at times, and I wanted to know what was going to happen next, especially when Holly tries to search for Eden in London. At the same time, it slows down for serious moments when it needs to. This is particularly true when Holly and her mother Jane share their experiences with Peter and how he impacted them.
Furthermore, I love how the book gives little nods to the original story. It mentions stuff like green and silver colors and wings. My favorite was the red feather that was left in Eden’s room in the cottage the night she disappeared. They weren’t in your face per se, yet one could pick them up pretty quickly while moving along with the story.
While the novel is a part of the fantasy genre, those elements are sprinkled in contemporary London. This makes it easier for those who are hard-core fantasy readers, but want to get into that category.
I had certain questions about the story. Some of these were how Neverland works, especially now that not even Peter Pan can get back, and how the disease that Eden has progressed. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are explored more in a sequel.
If I had one nitpick, it would be that I wish Holly was at the final battle against Peter in the clock tower. At the same time, she did so much to protect others that maybe her letting go of the reins was necessary.
Overall, Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan by Liz Michalski is a wonderful retelling of the classic tale. It dives deep into a part of the story not explored by other authors. It helps that the protagonist is a flawed individual, but readers are allowed to understand why she does the things she has to do. The reinterpretations, pacing, and nodes to the original book are also well executed. I would recommend it to those who love Peter Pan in any of its incarnations, dark fantasy novels like Once Upon a River by Diane Setterflied, books that explore motherhood beyond the surface, and retellings of classic stories in general. I loved Darling Girl so much that I’m going to read another Peter Pan reimagining soon. I wonder if that one will deal with another problematic aspect of the tale – the portrayal of the Indigenous people.
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