It’s always disappointing when a poorly written novel winds up on the New York Times Bestsellers list, so I was not surprised when Delia Owen’s “Where the Crawdads Sing” did not live up to the glowing reviews. Published in 2018, “Where the Crawdads Sing” has held the #2 spot on Amazon’s “Top 20 Most Sold & Most Read Books of the Week” chart for over 102 consecutive weeks. It also sat at the top of the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 and 2020 list for 32 weeks and was additionally a pick for Reese Witherspoon’s well-known book club. I’m typically cautious with commercial fiction novels, but I couldn’t help picking this one up, especially after seeing it promoted on almost every book club list and learning that Reese Witherspoon’s production company would be spearheading the upcoming film adaptation.
For a brief introduction, “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens is a contemporary commercial fiction novel that chronicles the story of an abandoned six-year-old, Kya Clark, as she learns to fend for herself in the North Carolina marshes. Set in 1952, the story follows teenage Kya as she grows up in a rather prickly community that refuses to help or acknowledge her. Kya remains isolated for most of her adolescent life until she one day catches the eye of Tate, her brother’s old friend. Tate eventually teaches Kya how to read and guides her to becoming a brilliant and very intelligent biologist.
The story alternates storylines between 1952 to 1969, where the adult Kya has become a prime suspect in the murder of Chase Andrews, her abusive ex-boyfriend. Both past and present collide as we uncover more about the mysterious “Marsh Girl” that everyone seems to fear.
My biggest takeaway from this novel was that the author did not want Kya to succeed. A strange choice of words, but I felt that Owens severely mishandled Kya’s characterization. Rather than develop an individual who works to overcome her circumstances, the author tries awfully hard to keep Kya in the marsh and stagnate her character growth, which seems counterintuitive to this supposed coming-of-age story. Having a protagonist endure trials and tribulations is definitely necessary when building a well-developed character; however, the tragedies that Owen’s forces upon Kya often felt very gimmicky and rarely made sense.
For instance, we start off the novel with the complete disappearance of Kya’s family of five, predicated with an excuse that they all needed to get away from their alcoholic father (who has also left). While it’s somewhat understandable, it doesn’t add up that not a single member in Kya’s family even thought to take their six-year-old along with them. Owens hastily thrusts Kya into a very cruel situation to forcibly shift the story into the “wild girl raising herself” plotline. The author treated Kya’s family as though they were inconsequential to Kya’s story, and I believe that was a misstep that the author never completely considered. Throwing aside the role of family in this girl’s life and getting them out of the way for emotional conflict just doesn’t sit right with me. Struggle just for the sake of struggle does not make me want to sympathize with a character, especially when it’s done so blatantly. Decisions like these are what pull me away from a narrative.
This is just one of the many implausible plotlines that were hard to take at face value. The author seemed very fascinated by the idea of a little girl raising herself in a swamp, but doesn’t engage with the actual implications of this premise. For instance, Kya never gets sick or sees a doctor during her years on the marsh, which seems strange considering she only ever eats grits and does not live in the best home situation.
When it comes to Kya as a young adult, I thought she lacked a lot of agency and was very complacent about her situation. Time and time again, teenage Kya sulks and complains about living on her own, but when an opportunity arises, she doesn’t take it. She ignores plausible solutions and never even considers options that could improve her life. She just sits there, waiting for people to rescue her.
While I think it’s perfectly acceptable to have characters who stick with what they’re comfortable with, you can tell that Owens is repeatedly reigning in on Kya’s inquisitiveness and hindering her desire to seek a better life, and I think that does a complete disservice to her character, who is portrayed as being a brilliant and resourceful individual.
But Kya is smart and sophisticated only when it is convenient. Otherwise, the author will usually throw Kya’s brilliance away when it doesn’t benefit the story she keeps trying to force. For instance, Owens emphasizes how much of a prodigy Kya is with biology, and she constantly reminds us that Kya is great, if not better than Tate, when it comes to knowledge of the natural world. But when Tate has to leave Kya for university, she spends three to four years on the same marsh, pinning and crying over the same boy. At a certain point, it just gets frustrating to read. With all the knowledge that she has, Kya could have searched for ways to get herself into a university, but she focuses on the boy, not the education. It’s slight things like these that made me question what message Owens was trying to push.
I later learned, however, that the focus on the boy was intentional. As I read along, I realized that the author wanted Kya to stay on the marsh in order for her to push a very out of place YA love triangle.
After Tate leaves Kya for college, another boy from town named Chase Andrews sees Kya on her marsh and pursues a relationship with her. This decision to force a very juvenile and unnecessary romance frustrated me because it leaves Kya’s character development at the mercy of these woefully one-dimensional relationships. Throughout the book, we only ever see Kya through these two boys, and I wish we had gotten to see her personality outside of these relationships. Kya shouldn’t have had to stay in the marshes for the sake of a poorly written love triangle. The author’s decision to make Kya stay in her precarious situation undermines the strong and independent woman that we saw in Kya before the love triangle.
I think the plot twist at the ending further proves my point that the author did a terrible job creating a character that we can invest in. In the end, we find out that Kya was actually the one who killed Chase Andrews. As I’ve stated before, this conclusion presented some striking inconsistencies to Kya’s character. The twist just doesn’t coincide with the smart, cautious woman that we’ve been following this entire time. Rather than clever, I thought this twist just revealed the hidden underbelly of stunted character development that Kya has had throughout the story. After reading the ending, I questioned why I had even read this coming-of-age story only for the character who I thought I knew to do a complete 180 into a different person. I thought I had a decent grasp on who Kya was as a character, but learning that she plotted the scheme to kill Chase showed me I never knew her to begin with, which is a problem.
While some may see the plot twist as interesting, I was disheartened, but it did further prove my point that Kya’s character development is so significantly hindered by cheap and useless plot obstacles that we never really get to know her as a character. Again, the author makes Kya brilliant and intelligent, but when this becomes inconvenient, she changes her into something widely different.
From another perspective, the plot twist really undermined the entire message that the book has been promoting all along, which is that Kya is not the “swamp rat” that everyone believes she is. What good does it do to have her to be the villain that everyone wanted her to be? It defeats the entire message of having the underdog rise above those who underestimate them. How does the story expect me to care about the plot twist when the majority of the characters behave so inconsistently? Neglecting your characters is an easy way to turn readers away, and as shown, it diminishes the quality of the story.
That is why I believe this plot twist was the most glaring pitfall of this novel. Not only did it expose the author’s poor writing, but it also further cemented for me that the focus of this novel was never Kya and her growth into an independent woman. The author clearly cared more about making a shocking plot twist than actually developing her characters.
A good plot twist is not predictable and makes sense with what’s been happening in the story. A good story, moreover, should not rely on a plot twist as to improve the quality of a poor story. The plot twist should be able to enhance an already strong narrative. In fact, a good story should be able to stand on its own without requiring a plot twist to make it better.
Unfortunately, “Where the Crawdad’s Sing” is not that kind of story.
Ultimately, if you’re willing to suspend a LOT of disbelief, then perhaps this may be the book you’re looking for. Otherwise, this novel has way too many inconsistencies that are difficult to ignore. It’s hard to take this book seriously when the author cares more about shock value than developing believable characters. I think this is one of the countless commercial fiction novels that would be best to avoid.