I have a terrible confession to make. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a book club. I do spend my entire worklife talking about books, recommending books, and reading books, but still, the lack remains.
Normally when I finish a book, I feel the familiar pangs of frustration—frustration that I don’t have a circle of friends who are reading the exact same book at the exact same moment.
But when I turned the final page of Diane Thomas’ most recent novel (a phrase which becomes more significant with authors who aren’t as prolific as, say, Joyce Carol Oates), I had the opposite reaction. Instead of rushing out to share my thoughts and emotions about this beautifully rendered book with the world, I wanted to savor my sense of the characters, my taste of the place that Thomas conjured up so lushly, and to bottle my own reactions concerning the dark heart of love.
Luckily, that feeling of isolation passed and I’ve done little BUT talk about this book since I finished reading it. Trust me, if you’ve come into the store in the past two weeks, you’ve probably heard me go on and on about what a great, touching, and unique novel I thought this was.
The novel starts at the end of the 60s, with Katherine Reid learning that she’s going to die. Great start, right? But within this strong, if common, literary trope, Thomas clears space for Katherine’s strange and passionate story to really get the elbow room it deserves.
So what’s a woman to do when she learns that she’s not long for this world? If you said sell all your possessions and buy a small cabin in the middle of nowhere to finally be alone before you meet the great unknown, you would be correct! But all jokes aside, that’s probably what I would do, too.
The story truly starts not when Katherine resigns herself to her own demise, but after, in the far murkier territory of having to live in the wake of death. Because Katherine does not die. In fact, much to her own shock (and possible chagrin), she starts to feel better.
Now alone, purposeless, and, most importantly, alive, Katherine must reassess her own life. The startling beauty of this book comes from the seamless way that Thomas depicts these decisions. There are no rousing speeches, no “As god is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again” moment. Instead, Katherine’s quiet rebirth coincides with her sensitive awareness of the nature that surrounds her. Thomas lets this relationship grow slowly until eventually it vibrates with an electric excitement that beats the loudest, most boisterous urban novel out there.
The novel takes a hard left turn with the introduction of a strange new narrator, whose disjointed ramblings give early indication of his addled, post-Vietnam mind. Danny’s fixation with Katherine veers from disgust to absolute adoration to what can best be termed “emotional cannibalism”, though what he truly wants from her only the reader can guess.
This book does what only great love stories can do. It ultimately refuses to be about love, and begins to be about so much more.
But despite Danny and Katherine’s intense connection, the book doesn’t concede too much territory to erotics. Instead, the story remains, unwaveringly, Katherine’s, the knowledge of which both consoles and infuriates the floundering Danny. Their transference of power and love comes at a great cost, but what great love didn’t cost a steep price?
The conclusion reads at lightning speed as you follow their fears unfurling in totally separate fashions. I hesitate (as always) to give too much of the plot away. Thomas’ prose sparkles with sincerity, care, and absolutes. I was so swept away by this story, I forgot to breathe.
So who should read “In Wilderness”? Anyone. Everyone.
Thomas does a wonderful job depicting Katherine’s startling discovery of the depth of nature, what it gives and how it can seize just as much. Her personal journey through death, through health, through art, and even through love left me stunned.
Danny’s arc is well-thought out, powerful, and cinematic. My only criticism (if you can call it that) is that it pales beside the careful tale of Katherine. If Danny’s story is a love song, Katherine’s is an opera.
I was sad to leave this book when I turned the final page. And when we finally got our finished copies into the bookstore, I opened it up to see the pages and rediscover these two characters.
This is truly a labor of love, and a lifetime achievement. Towards the back of the novel, Diane Thomas writes that it took her nearly 30 years to write this story. And while that may seem surprising for another novelist, after reading this book, all I could do was nod and say, “that seems about right.” It reads like an opus compacted into a gorgeously brief novel of love, sickness, and the wildness within us all.