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Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan

Review

Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan

We are all familiar with the boy who can never grow up. But what about the Darling family he left behind --- and his own feelings about them? Readers who love fractured fairy tales and urban mythology will appreciate Liz Michalski’s DARLING GIRL, a modern and darkly written retelling of PETER PAN.

Everyone knows the story of Wendy, the young girl who is banned from her childhood nursery, only to discover an innocent, mischievous boy who can promise her new adventures in a place where you never grow old, never hurt and never die. But if we’re being honest, that all sounds a bit too convenient, even for fairy tales. In the world of DARLING GIRL, there was indeed a Peter and a Wendy, and even a next generation of Darlings in Wendy’s daughter, Jane. But there’s also a Peter who is drawn not to innocence and naivety but to the loss of innocence, an emotional vampire whose blood of choice is Darling family dysfunction. And Wendy’s adult granddaughter, Holly, has more than her share of dysfunction.

"[I]t is in Michalski's writing of [the] supporting characters that she truly makes the lore her own, circumventing and upending everything you thought you knew and revealing her grasp of the classic story to be not only masterful, but also confident and clever."

When Holly’s twin sons were very young, a devastating car crash killed her husband and one of her sons. Although she birthed a daughter soon after, Eden was born with a rare disease that aged her at a rapid pace, which put her body in such distress that she could never recover from a childhood fall that put her in a coma. As a member of the well-known Darling family, made famous by J.M. Barrie’s classic book, Holly had to face each of these traumas in the spotlight, her tragedies being written under quippy and horrifying headlines. But she managed to keep one or two secrets herself, including the real identity of Eden’s father.

For years, Holly has been the lead scientist and public-facing persona of Darling Skin Care. By isolating restorative and powerful proteins in sea creatures, minerals and plants, she has revolutionized skin care, making a name for herself that stands almost as tall as her family lore. But her work also has allowed her to isolate the protein in her daughter’s blood that binds to damaged cells and restores them. In Eden, this means rapid aging, but in those without her rare illness, it means repairing breaks and filling patients with powerful antibodies.

No one knows this better than Holly, as she has been injecting her only living son with Eden’s blood for years to ensure he can live safely in a world that she knows all too well is full of danger. But there is no fall, no illness, no pesky zit as dangerous as her family’s constant companion: Peter Pan. So when her comatose daughter suddenly disappears from her family compound, along with several vials of her powerful blood, Holly knows the police aren’t necessary. Only she and her grandmother can find the man who took Eden: her father, Peter Pan. But they’ll need the help of a vigilante bounty hunter, Christopher Cooke (rhymes with Hook).

In order to find Eden and Peter, Holly will have to bury herself in Darling family lore, including the reasons why Peter seemed to favor Wendy and Holly while skipping over Jane entirely. As a young girl who rolled her eyes at her family’s claim to fame and came to hate and fear Peter, this means tapping into some serious inner fears and family secrets to get into the head of the mythological Peter. Can he really never grow older, or can he simply never grow up? Is his innocence truly naivety, or is it willful ignorance that doesn’t care who it hurts? As Holly tries to prove once and for all that Peter is a dangerous, powerful man with the whims of a boy, Jane embarks on her own journey to meet this “new” volatile Peter and go on her own awfully big adventure.

This is by no means an easy read, yet it has the same intoxicating pull as Neverland, particularly in Michalski’s portrayals of Jane, Captain Hook (a former army veteran who now delights in ridding the streets of drug dealers) and even Tinker Bell. Though her depiction of Holly can be shaky at times --- the backstory is all bad luck, no impact --- it is in Michalski's writing of these supporting characters that she truly makes the lore her own, circumventing and upending everything you thought you knew and revealing her grasp of the classic story to be not only masterful, but also confident and clever.

The resounding theme of the negative aspects of hero worship and the stories we tell to preserve the legacies of those least deserving hits its mark. The novel reaches a truly satisfying conclusion at the end, though I fear the more grotesque aspects may force readers to close the book on this story too soon.

Perfect for readers of THE CHARMED WIFE, HOW TO BE EATEN, and even young adult works like DOROTHY MUST DIE and CINDERELLA IS DEAD, DARLING GIRL is a strong and accomplished addition to the lore of Peter Pan. Just remember that he’s likely not the hero you think he is.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 4, 2022

Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan
by Liz Michalski

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 0593185633
  • ISBN-13: 9780593185636