Sunday, June 16, 2013

AudioBook Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Title: A Northern Light 

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Read By: Hope Davis

Rating: 5 Stars

A Northern Light is one of those books you come across every few years; the type of novel that buries itself in your heart from the first page and simply lingers in your thoughts for days, weeks, and even months afterward. Although I've probably read at least two books and three novellas since I set this story down, it has still been in the forefront of my thoughts. I will likely tell my parents to yell at Jennifer Donnelly if they want someone to blame for my bad grades and sleepless nights. After all, how could I have done anything with my life until I knew what happened in Mattie's? And now how can I possible continue do anything without her voice by my side? It's the cruelest kind of paradox, one that only arrives when you love a protagonist as much as this one. Without a doubt, A Northern Light is very possibly the best book I've read - and will read - this year.

Prior to having read A Northern Light, the only Donnelly novel I'd read was Revolution, which made me sit up till 3 AM wracked with sobs while I finished the book. Now, let me tell you, that was not a fun reading experience. I had swollen cheeks, red eyes, and an aching heart by the end of it. Needless to say, I more-or-less swore off of Donnelly after that. Any author whose words had that type of power over me was dangerous. Quite thankfully, though, a lovely review convinced me to pick this one up and I'm so very glad I did. A Northern Light is a quiet, unassuming sort of tale, one that is filled with courage and strength and hope instead of despair and death and loss. It isn't always a happy story, but it is a truthful one; it never glosses over the harsh realities of life, especially for women of the time, and it faithfully empowers women in a manner that is never overbearing, merely subtle.

Donnelly's A Northern Light is told cleverly with two timelines neatly converging into one, creating an ending that is both satisfying and powerful. When the novel begins, the body of a drowned woman, Grace Brown, is found near the inn where Mattie works. Shortly before leaving for her boat ride, Grace gave Mattie a bundle of letters to burn, but just hours later, Grace herself is found dead. Mattie, suspicious of the circumstances surrounding her death, begins to read the letters Grace gave her. As the contents of these letters are slowly revealed, so is Mattie. For every present-day chapter there are even more chapters from the past, not only detailing Mattie's journey but also showing who she really is.

Mattie's story takes place in the early 1900s, a time when women were expected to run a household and raise a family. Mattie, however, yearns to attend college, despite the fact that her mother recently died and her father needs her help on their farm. Although there are many other responsibilities Mattie has, from the beginning itself it is hard not to root for her. After all, this is a protagonist whose love for language pushes her to learn a new word from the dictionary everyday. And though I regard A Northern Light to be a tale that empowers women and celebrates feminism, Mattie herself is no Alice Paul. Instead, what makes her such an endearing and unforgettable protagonist are, first and foremost, her passions and secondly, her own inner battles. While society pushes Mattie towards a life of love and comfort in a house with children, her own heart begins to push her that way too, which makes the decision to chase her dream that much more difficult.

All the more, Mattie is not a perfect character. Although one of her best friends is an African American boy who is on his way to Columbia, Mattie doesn’t always treat her own family properly. In fact, these family dynamics are what make the novel so fascinating, what make us keep flipping these pages frantically. Will Mattie convince her father to allow her to go to college? Can the inspirational teacher Mattie had help her in this endeavor? Is Mattie really going to be tied down to her small town by a promise she once made to her dying mother? In such a subtle manner, Donnelly uses Mattie’s life to build her era. Instead of paragraphs of bland information, Mattie’s society is build around her and stems from her perceptions, making this the best kind of historical fiction there is – the kind that doesn’t feel like fiction at all.

In all honesty, though, I can keep prattling on about this book for days if you’d allow me. Mattie is such a vivacious, strong, and courageous character that her story captures you from the beginning. You yearn for her to fulfill her dreams, for her to realize her true calling in life and pursue it despite what others may say. You begin to pray that she will somehow escape her small town and farm life. You keep the book aside and tie your hands behind your back because you don’t want to know what happens even though you really do, but you’re so very scared of the outcome. You begin to hope feverishly that her love for her family will not cause her to disregard her love for words; that she will finally gain the opportunity to do what she wants to do. It’s a beautiful book, the kind you’ll always carry around with you – in your heart.


  1. I am SO THRILLED you loved this book! It's really breath-takingly wonderful, isn't it? Mattie's story just got under my skin--and that final scene is one of my favorites ever.

    YAY! :)

    (Please excuse the goofy comment, I am just such a nut for this book that I can't talk about it coherently.)

  2. I can't believe that I haven't heard of this book before. How could I miss this germ? Wow! I can't remember seeing you this fascinated by the book and I must read it. Sounds like one really special book. Great review :)

  3. I LOVE it when you finally read that book that makes you realize why you're in love with reading. Never heard of this book before but will definitely check it out on GR now :)

  4. I haven't heard of this but I'm glad you loved this one! Def. be keeping an eye out for this one now. Mattie sounds pretty awesome.

    Great review!

  5. That review. o.o

    Describes perfectly my thoughts of this book! I swear, you couldn't have put it into better words, Keertana! Mattie is absolutely my all time favourite protagonist, but still, that ending still leaves me on the edge... It was not something I expected, and it still leaves me wondering if Mattie did the right choice, acting so fast.

    Anyways, fantastic, fantastic review Keertana, your words just flow magnificently!

    -Grace :)

  6. KEERTANA. My goodness. Isn't it hilarious that I picked this book up from the library last year, and RETURNED IT, UNREAD. Who knew that I was throwing away a hidden gem? I know that after reading your review, I'm going to go and pick it back up. Originally I was turned off by the fact that there wasn't a definite plot line going on, but I guess some authors can pull it off and still make a wonderful story out of it. And I surely want to meet Mattie now! She seems like such a REAL character the way you described her. This story has a lot of little plotlines that come together, and one of my favorite things is when author tie them all together and it's just fascinating. I'll have to check this book out soon, thanks for the beautiful review, Keertana!

    Jen at Books and Other Happy Ever Afters

  7. This is such a gorgeous review Keertana. I actually started this book a year or two ago, but was only able to read the first few chapters, as another reader had requested my copy from the library. Now after reading this review, I know for sure that I will have to give this book another try, I love how Donnelly has left such a great impression with you!

  8. I'm usually not a fan of audiobooks manily because the narrations get so boring and I end up falling asleep haha! BUT A Northern Light seems interesting enough to get my attention. Great insight!

    - Ellie at The Selkie Reads Stories

  9. You had me so into wanting this book and then you said you sobbed. NO! I hate to cry... and yet you make this book sound so compelling. Oh man... looks like I'm going to have to suck it up and read it. I also don't want to miss out on a great book!

  10. You definitely have to read this one, Melissa. Also, just to clarify, Revolution made me sob, but not this one. It was a much more hopeful tale and I loved that aspect of it. :)

  11. That gorgeous medal on the cover means I'd definitely read this even without your review, but boy, am I eager to get my hands on it now.
    Historical fiction, a character with a pretty noble and modern cause, but not perfect by any standards? Sign me up!

    IT really does sound wonderful. Off to BEtter World Books to see about getting a copy.

  12. Oh I do hope that I'm able to read this book soon! I read the CEFS lovely review as well, and now I have your equally lovely review telling me that I really should read this. I love historical fiction, although I can't say I've read much hf taking place in America in the early 1900s. And who doesn't love a strong female protagonist who strength seems to be wanting to educate and better herself? Definitely the type of protagonist I can easily stand behind. Your mention of Revolution also reminds me that I need to read that. At some point I think I'll have to binge read at least these two Donnelly books. :)

  13. I read this one waaay back in the summer of 2011, and simply gave it 3 stars. While I wasn't writing many reviews back in those days, I apparently said that this book was pretty boring in the middle, which is why I gave it the rating I did. Your stunning review makes me think that I should go back and re-read it (I've pretty much forgotten everything anyways, so I might as well, you know?). Hopefully the second time around it'll be more memorable. I remember liking the MC, but I didn't connect with her as well as you seemed to. (But I totally loved Revolution as much as you did!! ;))

    Gorgeous review, as always, Keertana! <3

    -Aneeqah @ My Not So Real Life

  14. This sounds like such a beautiful story, Keertana. I'm wondering if the mystery behind Grace's death is resolved. Lovely review! :)

  15. Another book I need to read! I am ashamed to say that I had this book in hand and read the first chapter or so, but never went back to it. Clearly that was a mistake! I love historical fiction and mysteries and stories about strong and likable but flawed heroines. I also enjoyed Revolution, so I'm not sure why I haven't gotten back to this one. That's going to change though!

  16. Adding this to my TBR pile! I need more historical fiction in my life, and this sounds like a lovely read! I love that the reader learns more about the protagonist through the letters Mattie reads. And I would love to read more about this time period. Thank you so much for such a wonderful review! Hopefully, I will be getting to this soon! :D

  17. I'm so happy to see that you connected with this one so well, Keertana, particularly on audio! I read this about a year and a half ago, and while I quite enjoyed it, I don't think it really touched me the way it did you. I love that Mattie was a flawed character, and I loved the very subtle mystery in the background, and the fact that it was so applicable to coming of age today even though her world was so different.

  18. What a gorgeous review! I knew you were loving this one as you read, I'm so happy that it lived up to your expectations! I've only read Revolution, which like you, tore me up but I still loved it. I know my library has A Northern Light so I plan on picking this up sometime this summer (or at least this year) and giving it a try. I can't imagine it being more perfect then Revolution, but your review has me rethinking that stance:)

  19. This book is utterly memorable. Weirdly enough, I read this when I very first started blogging and I can still remember some details which like never happens to me. This book really stays with you. It's not my favorite subject but this was an amazing novel and I tried to remain objective, and I did give it 5 stars even if it was not a favorite. It's been hard to do that with any books since.


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