Peter Pan has always been a popular character. Thanks to the love the original book received, and the hit Disney film, he’s a character that has been re-imagined and reinvented time and time again. But in the majority of those re-tellings it’s been about the wonder of Neverland, about how amazing Peter is, and how positive an impact the adventure had on Wendy and her brothers. A.C. Wise throws this out, instead focusing on the darkness just behind the scenes of Neverland, and how adventuring with Peter Pan isn’t always a good thing.
Wendy, Darling explores the character of Wendy across multiple periods of her life, with these different stories weaving in and out of the main narrative to give readers a slowly unfolding insight into one of the most famous characters in children’s literature. After returning from Neverland things have not been good for the Darling children. Their parents died on the Titanic, Michael was injured in World War One and suffers from traumatic PTSD, and Wendy, who refuses to stop talking about Neverland, is sent to an institution.
Despite these awful things, we get to see Wendy as a happily married woman, with a daughter of her own. However, when Peter appears one night and decides to take Jane, Wendy’s daughter, to Neverland we not only get to see Wendy going after them, determined to bring her daughter home, but also discover much of what’s happened to her over the years, including the torment and love she discovered whilst locked away.
Wendy, Darling isn’t a book about Peter, or Neverland, despite it giving readers a new and somewhat drastic explanation for the character and his world. Instead, the book is about Wendy and the strength she has built up over the years. We see much of this over the two time periods that we follow Wendy. The first begins in 1917, when John has decided that he’s been left no choice but to take Wendy to the St. Bernadettes asylum to stop her ravings about Neverland and the rages it brings out in her from hurting their youngest brother, who’s still dealing with his own mental scars from the war. The second, set in 1931, follows Wendy as she travels back to Neverland to rescue her daughter.
I honestly thought that out of the two of these I would find the one where Wendy returns to Neverland and has to confront the people and places from her past would be the most exciting part of the book, especially as Wise explores the more horrific elements of the story; and whilst these sections are great, I don’t think that they really hold a candle to how good the intervening years are. The Wendy we see enter St. Bernadettes is something of a spoilt and angry woman, one who’s had to deal with her own share of hardships yes, but who ultimately doesn’t think that she can be wrong about anything because she was the only Darling sibling to remember Neverland. She has an arrogance to her that quickly becomes checked once she’s locked away far from home, and it’s through her trials there that we get to really see her grow as a person.
The book took some surprising turns along the way, and I was honestly not expecting the author to make certain choices that they did. But the way Wendy’s story was crafted really drew me in, and I realised that I was more invested in learning how she eventually got out of the asylum and became a mother and wife over what she would find at the heart of Neverland.
I loved how I was expecting to be taken on a grand adventure, but instead got a complex and engaging character driven story, one that dealt with grief and trauma, loss and family, and most of all was about love. Not just Wendy’s love as a mother though, but queer love too, about deep love as friends, and how family can form in some less traditional combinations. I was never expecting the book to do this, but the fact that it did made it all the more worth reading.
Wendy, Darling will appeal to people who have a soft spot for Peter Pan, who read the books and watched the movies, but it’ll also appeal to a lot more people than that. It’s focus on a strong female lead, about the strength that women have inside them, and the power to overcome insurmountable odds make this not just a magical fairy tale, but a powerful feminist story too.
Wendy, Darling is out now from Titan Books.