Book Review: Darling Girl by Liz Michalski

I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. Publication date: 3 May 2022

Holly Darling is the granddaughter of Wendy – yes, that Wendy. Two generations removed from the famous tale, Holly has grown up in the shadow of her family’s famous story. There is the famous Wendy, who always seemed to live with one foot in Neverland. There is Holly’s mother, Jane, who longed to be swept away by Peter Pan but he never came for her. And there is Holly, who alone knows the darker side of Peter.

Holly is a brilliant and beautiful scientist, living in New York with her teenage son, Jack. Her past is marred by tragedy though. Jack’s father and his twin brother were killed in a car accident. Then, Holly’s daughter, Eden, ends up in a coma after another accident. Holly leaves England with Jack and in the ensuing years, founds a very successful skin care company, throwing herself into her work. Darling Skin Care is on the cusp of a huge deal when Holly gets the news that, back in Cornwall, Eden has disappeared.

How does a girl in a coma disappear? Holly is sure that Peter Pan has something to do with it. She and Jack return to England and to her mother’s home. Back in the nursery where Peter first appeared to the Darlings, Holly does everything she can to find Eden. And to save Jack, whose health is rapidly deteriorating. To do so, she enlists the help of a mysterious ex-soldier, a man with a hook for one hand named Christopher Cook.

The plot here is both complex and simple. The tragedies of Holly’s life are both magical and prosaic. Her beloved husband was killed in a car accident, one that also left her with one son who may never walk again. Not long after, Holly finds herself pregnant and when her daughter is born, the girl suffers from a condition that causes her to rapidly age. Yet Eden’s condition might be the secret to saving Jack’s life; so when she disappears, both of Holly’s children are in danger. Because of the complexity of her tragedy, Holly has kept everyone around her at arm’s length. Even Jack is ignorant of much of their family history. The only other person who knows that the story of Peter Pan is true is Jane. But only Holly knows how dangerous Peter is.

This is overall a fun and inventive take on the classic tale of Peter Pan. There is a sort of sense in the way Michalski turns the story on its head. After all, a never-aging boy who flies through bedroom windows and takes children away – isn’t that every parent’s nightmare? There is a good sense of pacing from beginning to end, always something to focus on, always a problem to solve, or a tension to relieve. It was fun to note which characters might be a twist on a classic Barrie character.

Where the story faltered for me was in the character of Holly herself. She’s just too perfect – too beautiful, too poised, too brilliant. She’s had tragedy, sure, but she also seems to be personally flawless. At the same time, a lot of her current difficulties seem to be due to her own decisions. There’s being private and then there’s shooting yourself in the foot over and over again. There were several points where things might have been sorted out much sooner if Holly hadn’t been so determined to do everything on her own and this became irritating to read.

But Darling Girl is a fun, fantastical read and as such it delivers. Although I’m not intimately familiar with the source story, this felt very in line with the fun and magic and slight darkness of the original tale.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Darling Girl by Liz Michalski”

  1. I must admit I always found the original Peter Pan story dark and disturbing even when I was a child. And it wasn’t helped by reading a horror story based on it many years ago, which was really horrible and left itself indelibly imprinted on my brain! So I’m already disturbed about what Peter is up to this time… 😉

    1. I think there is an element of darkness in the original and this book capitalizes on it nicely. I have an illustrated edition of it that I bought to read with my kids but I keep hesitating because I remember being scared by the story!

  2. I am so tempted by Darling Girl. I saw a film last year of the Peter Pan stage show, one of those Covid specials that was put on for people who were missing theatre, and loved it. The stage show had some scary elements, too.

    1. The stage show was suitable for families, or so I thought. I’m in my 50s so am out of the habit of thinking about what small children might find frightening.

  3. I didn’t read the original Peter Pan novel until I was an adult, so the scenes that might have been filled with wonder for me if I’d read it when I was young were all a bit marred with the distress of knowing that the parents would be out of their minds with worry! I still think it’s a very good book (though with some weird stuff about gender roles in it), and I think it’s fascinating that Barrie didn’t do what a lot of novelists would have done and make the children’s adventures in Neverland happen all in one night – but I can easily see how a story with that as the premise could be turned very dark very quickly.

    1. My first introduction was the Disney movie and then I was probably around 12 when I read the book. The gender role stuff and the racial stuff is also what’s holding me back from reading it with my own kids. I’m sure if I read it now I would be a lot more sympathetic with their parents too! At least in Narnia, the kids return at the exact moment they disappear!

  4. I just read about this book somewhere else, and that’s going to bother me that I can’t remember where. I’ll always think of canon Peter Pan being the movie Hook with Robin William and Dustin Hoffman. Rufio! Rufio! Ru! Fi! Ohhhhhhhh!

    1. Hook is absolutely the future of Peter Pan that I always think of! It was actually tricky at first to have to remember that Robin Williams wasn’t who Peter Pan grew up into. I loved Rufus!

  5. mmm Peter Pan isn’t a story I’m very familiar with either, but the premise of it certainly makes for a great thriller, so I can see the appeal in this one. And I agree with you – characters who are just too perfect aren’t really fun to follow around.

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