Book Review: The Hazel Wood

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This read speaks everything fairytale — from the cover design to the blurb, to the spellbinding photos all over IG. I was really excited to pick up The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert but then I realised chapter by chapter that this wasn‘t what I was expecting at all.

I‘m all for surprises in reading, and in fact I hope that many of the books I pick up pleasantly surprise me, but The Hazel Wood ended up catching me off guard. I did this read as part of a buddy read with one of my favourite Instagrammers Read with Angie. I kept an open mind while reading the book, waiting for when the fantasy-fairytale moments would start so I could feel redeemed by the story, except that wasn‘t what happened at all.

There were some parts that I really loved about this read, but mostly I didn‘t. To fit it into one word, I would describe it as: misleading.

I Liked the Idea of It

The only truly positive thing I can say about this book is that I really liked the idea of this story. Something drew me to it, the same draw that I think everyone who has seen the cover on Instagram feels — there‘s something so enigmatic about a mysterious world between the woods. It‘s something that‘s been in our fairytales since ancient times. The woods are a place of wonder and mystery, and I was really looking forward to exploring this world. Maybe the best thing that Albert does with this book, is brings this archetype into the modern day.

It‘s Not a Fairytale

This was the clincher for me. I picked up this read because I thought it would be a fairytale-esque story, especially because of all the photos I was seeing on IG and the blurb itself: “Her mother is stolen away—by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother's stories are set…To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother's tales began—and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.”

Sounds like a fairytale, right? Even the name Alice to me seemed to echo Lewis Carroll. So when I picked up this read, with it‘s beautifully created cover, I thought I was settling in for a fairytale reimagining. Sadly, it wasn‘t. Most of the story (about 3/4 of the book) is set in modern day NYC. I felt the parts of the book I enjoyed most were the stories written as references to the mysterious Tales from the Hinterland, which is a shame because I feel this novel idea had so much potential.

The Language is too Hyperbolic

I love when authors use language to express the fullness of their character or a scene, but this language I feel was all too much. It‘s one thing to use hyperbole, metaphors and similies to enrich your story, it‘s another to bombard a reader with sensory overload. Throughout the novel, the language continually draws you out of the world Albert is trying to create. In the end, I had to force myself to skim over the language so I could understand the storyline, which is really the opposite of what literary devices should do.

The Characters Were and Weren‘t Entirely Realistic

I felt the tone of this read was very YA, which is fine, but again, it wasn‘t something I was expecting, and I think this tone interferes with how the characters are communicated. The characters are realistic in the sense that a very vivd feeling of each character emerges, which is really Albert‘s strong suit. At the same time, the characters fall into heavy cliches, tropes and a sense of a cardboard-cut-out type of character. Alice and the main love interest Finch feel like the stereotypical ‘rebellious teenage love couple‘ and Alice‘s mother falls into the ‘Over-protective mother‘ stereotype. Even Alice herself is the pinnacle of the stereotypical reckless teenager. For me, there was just too much cliche and again, I think this has to do with the genre. While it is meant to be fantasy, it doesn‘t mean that the characters have to have a fake facade.

Where is the Fantastical Element?

For a fantasy, fairytale book I felt the book itself lacked in fantastical elements. Almost all of the book is set in present day NYC, with the fantasy element coming in for the last 1/4 of the book. So I was left wondering, where is the fantasy? When you pick up a book like this, especially with such an enticing blurb and cover design, you expect beautiful fantastical imagery for most, if not all, of the read. This is why I feel The Hazel Wood is misleading — it doesn‘t set out to do what a fantasy book is known to do.

The Plot is All Together Confusing

Once in the Hazel Wood, the scenes are simultaneously confusing and logical. I found myself able to understand the scene before it changed in a second and I had to reread to see where this jump had come from, and where it was leading to. Once in the fantasy world, I really felt a part of that world and the descriptive, tactile nature of the language really set the scene. At the same time, I had questions. Albert doesn‘t really explain much of The Hazel Wood itself. She brings up some aspects of it, like The Halfway Wood, but goes into very little detail. By the end of the book, a lot of the things she refers to, you still don‘t even know the full story behind it. Again, there was so much room for potential here, and I would‘ve liked to read more about this world within a world, but the chance is squandered.

There‘s No Character Development

When characters go on a journey, there is always some kind of character development that takes place. If you look at the typical fairytale structure of the Hero‘s Journey, by the time of the return of the hero, the character has changed and altered, becoming better, braver, stronger for the experience. Or alternately, the character could be changed for the worse. In some way, everything has to change, a new world has to emerge. In The Hazel Wood it‘s as if nothing has changed. It‘s as if everything happened and it had no effect on the character whatsoever and now the world chugs along just as it always did. This just isn‘t at all how it really is, and it shows. When I did this buddy read with Read with Angie, she had the same feeling. It‘s a subtle difference that anyone would notice because put simply, life changes us in some way, so this needs to be reflected in the stories we tell.

I really like the idea of The Hazel Wood and I could definitely see it working as a novel, I really didn‘t enjoy Melissa Albert‘s rendition of it. I‘m pretty selective when it comes to choosing a read to enjoy, but sadly the misleading representation and marketing of this title has interfered with it for me. Perhaps if it was sold as a YA read and didn‘t try to give off a fantasy-fairytale vibe, then maybe whoever decided to read it would‘ve enjoyed it better. If you‘re looking for a fairytale read, then this one isn‘t for you.