Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Setting: Sonoma Valley, California in 1906, and San Francisco 1975-???? (no spoilers here!)
My copy came from: I purchased this from my local bookstore, Copperfields. There’s a reason this was on the sale rack.
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Review: Oh dear. I really did not like this book! I had heard such wonderful things about Valley of the Moon by Melanie Gideon from other bloggers, and I had very high expectations going into this book. After all, I live right by the real Valley of the Moon, like I blink and I’m there, and so I was very excited when I first heard about the plot of this book. It’s like Brigadoon! In Sonoma County (my home!)! And Valley of the Moon did excel in one thing, and that is describing the beauty of the Sonoma Valley. I felt at home reading this book. The scenery and setting felt so authentic; I could smell the trees and the dirt, and hear the animals and people farming the land at Greengage. But, unfortunately, this was the only aspect of the book that I enjoyed.
It was in June of 1889 that I stepped off the train in Glen Ellen, California, steam curling around my ankles, the smell of fate in the air. I took a deep breath. A perfume of mountain laurel, ripening grapes, and chaparral danced on the breeze, deepened with a base note of sun-baked rocks and ferns.
Let’s get to the plot
I was intrigued by the start of Valley of the Moon. We first meet Joseph, and hear a bit about his upbringing, and what leads him to the Sonoma Valley and starting the commune of Greengage. Then the earthquake happens. When the earthquake hit, some kind of time-warp thing happens, and the entire Greengage community becomes enshrouded in mysterious fog, which is deadly to walk into, thus trapping those in the commune. Greengage is stuck, but is still able to function as they have food, a doctor, and a school.
One day, a stranger, Lux, appears out of the fog. Lux is from 1975 San Francisco, and stumbles across the fog one evening while camping at Jack London State Park. She is able to come and go through the fog when it appears on the full moon. Sometimes when the full moon hits, time speeds up (and can do so at different rates – ie, one month, six months, one year), but only the outside world (like 1975 San Francisco) is affected by the time. Greengage continues on like it’s 1906, with the inhabitants noticing the days passing by as usual.
This plot device was interesting, for a point, and then it got to be too much. I got confused as to which character was what age, and parts of the plot felt so forced, like when Lux accidentally stays behind one full moon night. When she goes back to San Francisco, the time has shifted so that she’s missed an entire year, and that creates all kinds of drama. There are also some time shifts that really aggravated me, especially towards the end of the book. And don’t even get me started on how the book ended. I don’t generally throw books, but I really felt the urge to toss this one into the garbage bin when I read the ending.
Let’s talk about those characters
Valley of the Moon is told in alternating chapters from two different points of view. We hear from Joseph, the farmer who begins the Greengage commune, and we also hear from Lux, the single-mother in her 20s who lives in San Francisco and has a strained relationship with her parents, who live back east. Lux has a son named Bennett, “Benno”, and she has a roommate, Rhonda, and both of these characters become aware of Greengage and its meaning to Lux.
I really felt for Benno. He definitely had the toughest time in this book, as he has to deal with not having a father (his father, whom Lux had a fling with, was killed in Vietnam), racial issues (his father was half black), and he has to deal with Lux and her immaturity, along with her disappearing. Poor Benno kept doing silly things that were required by the plot, and this treatment of him really frustrated me.
Lux really irritated me. I couldn’t understand why, when she first enters Greengage, why she stuck around. She had a child who depended on her! And she didn’t know if she could go back to the real world! She just kinda stood in the fog for a moment, thought, “OK I’m good”, and then stayed in Greengage. The first thing I’d do upon finding some bizarre time-shift farm would be to see if I could leave it. And by seeing if I could leave it, I mean actually leave it, and then go back to it (if I didn’t run far, far away).
As the last four days until Benno came home slowly passed, and reality swept me under, there was a part of me that almost regretted finding Greengage. I’d never imagined a world like that existed, but now that I knew it did, it was impossible to switch off my longing for it. I’d felt so energized there, so complete. I couldn’t help but contrast it with the plodding inevitability of my life here. Minute after minute, hour after hour—the days unspooling as they always did. Wake at six. Get Benno ready for school. Pack his lunch. Shower. Dress. Breakfast. Get him to school. Take the bus to work. Punch in. Punch out hours later. Pick Benno up at school. Take the bus home. Make dinner. Do laundry. Pay bills. Fall into bed. Repeat, repeat, repeat until the end of time.
I also had a big problem with the lack of distinction between Lux and Joseph’s voices. Half the time, when they were on the farm, I could not tell who was narrating the story. That is how alike their voices were. The only distinguishing difference for me was the gender, and I’m sorry, that is not enough distinction when using two narrators to tell the story.
I was about halfway through the book and was thinking, oh I’m so glad there isn’t any romance in this book, and then, nope! Romance appeared, and uggh. I didn’t feel any chemistry at all, and the romance just frustrated me and felt forced. Plus, it also didn’t help that I was reading Joseph as being in his 60s, and I think he was just in his late 30s / early 40s. I don’t know, I couldn’t figure it out and didn’t care enough to go back and determine how old he really was at the beginning.
All in all this was a frustrating read for me. I picked this up because I was on the hunt for a book club choice. Sometimes I’ll choose a book without reading it first, and I’m glad I read this first, as I won’t be choosing this one! I think my book club would tear this one apart. So the hunt continues!
Bottom Line: Disappointing. Beautiful setting, but I just ended up confused and befuddled by the various plot twists and time jumps. And don’t get me started on that ending!
Does this sound like a good read? Have you read Valley of the Moon? What did you think? Have you ever been to the Sonoma Valley?