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Book Review: Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary

August 2, 2013

Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary
Pamela Dean
Tor, 350 pages

Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary are sisters growing up in Minnesota. Juniper, called Junie, is a teenager, prone to moody fits. Gentian is on the cusp of being a teenager. She has a telescope and wants to be an astronomer. Rosemary, at 11, is the youngest.

Gentian is mostly the anchor for the story. She has a group of friends who call themselves the Giant Ants (riffing off a lit ref I didn’t get): Bethany, a poet, Alma, who loves to dance, Steph, who I didn’t get a sense of, and Erin, who is OK with being mistaken for a boy sometimes… They’re all middle schoolers, so boys are just starting to enter the picture.

Speaking of boys: enter Dominic, next door neighbor, who always wears black, and always speaks in quotations, much to the exasperation of Gentian. Everything from Heinlein, to Shakespeare, to Euclid. All of which the characters recognize, even if they can’t make sense of why he’s talking in riddles.

Supernatural-ish elements start to creep in about Dominic and his house, which is the ugly, modern new house on the block. Gentian starts to have trouble with her telescope– Dominic’s house starts getting in the way of her observations. And Dominic wants their help building something. Almost to the last third of the book, the supernatural elements are hints, surrounding a book where very little plot seems to go on, there’s talking and quoting, and some of the exasperated bickering that goes on in families or groups of friends who are practically family.

Also, I noticed that Giant Ants are really well read- Bethany in the poetry she loves, that’s a given, but all of the characters, are comfortable quoting Shakespeare and 19th century poets and throwing around bon mots from Euclid and… really? Aren’t these girls 16 and 13? The entire family, and the narrative about them is cranked up to a level of prose and conversation that started to bleed into my own writing and speaking. I’ve noticed I tend to rely heavily on multisyllabic adjectives in speaking and writing, after having read this.

I also feel, sheepishly, that I am neither sufficiently well read, nor able to pull relevant literary quotes together with such alacrity as these characters do. (See? “alacrity!”) Perhaps I’ve read too much junk, or should blame the Internet. And I should certainly tuck myself away and read some Dickens or some C.S. Lewis or Brontes, Or Keats. These preteens are wise and academic in a way that feels out of my league. I remember feeling similarly about some sections of Madeleine L’Engle. I have to be more well, and widely read, to keep up with authors who work with such a diverse playing field for their allusions in popular fiction.

wanted to love this book. I’m a huge, huge fan of Dean’s Tam Lin. I must have read it dozens of times, and I’ll happily read it again. The overblown, and sometimes overwrought vocabulary and literary references crop up to an extent in Tam Lin. I think they’re more balanced, there, though, by the fact that all the characters are in college. And, by the fact that it’s a better book on many counts. Here, the story and its supernatural/folk elements felt tacked together hastily, in a way that wasn’t satisfying.

I shall have to go read Tam Lin again. And, possibly, the abovementioned classics.

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