For those that lived there, Neverland was a children’s paradise. No rules, no adults, only endless adventure and enchanted forests – all led by the charismatic boy who would never grow old.
But Wendy Darling grew up. She left Neverland and became a woman, a mother, a patient, and a survivor. Because Neverland isn’t as perfect as she remembers. There’s darkness at the heart of the island, and now Peter Pan has returned to claim a new Wendy for his lost boys…
I have a lot of complicated thoughts about this book, and they all boil down to: I think this is a fascinating story, but a really poor reimagining of Peter Pan.
Wendy, Darling is not really a retelling, but an additional story, set somewhere between the events of the original Peter Pan and Hook, the Robin Williams movie about a version of Peter Pan that really does grow up (you don’t need to have seen the latter to read this book). Broadly, in Wise’s version, Wendy grew up, got married and had a child, and is forced to revisit Neverland in order to save her daughter from Pan’s clutches.
However, it tells a much darker story than the original J.M. Barrie story, about what it actually means for someone to refuse to be an adult – and therefore take responsibility for the consequences of their actions – and how terrifying it is that Neverland is built on the backs of children effectively stolen away from their parents. It also takes a huge swing at the racism and misogyny inherent in earlier iterations of the books, including the idea that Wendy, as a woman, must mother the Lost Boys, as well as the caricicatures of Native Americans. Give us more retellings that poke at racist but otherwise beloved stories, please and thanks.
The story is split between three perspectives: Wendy in the present, in search of her daughter; Wendy in the past, as we learn that she was institutionalised by her brothers after returning from Neverland, for her inability to let the story go; and Jane, Wendy’s daughter, after she is kidnapped by Pan and forced to fight her way out of the strange new world she finds herself in. The middle story is compelling; there is a real gothic element to it as Wendy finds herself trapped and alone, with no way of processing her memories, trying desparately to convince others she’s not crazy even as she starts to wonder if Neverland was the utopia she thought it was while there. There’s also a lot of interesting themes here around processing of trauma (and remembering versus forgetting as different but equally legitmate ways of doing so), and the limited options for women in post-War England, where Wendy’s only option for redemption is seemingly to be coerced into a marriage she’s not sure she wants. (Without spoilers, there is ace/aro rep in this book which made my ace heart very happy, even if it somewhat fell towards the wayside towards the end).
The other two perspectives are less compelling, mostly because Jane feels indistinguishable from pretty much every child protagonist ever, but it feels like the author wanted people to engage the most with Wendy in the past, so I didn’t mind this too much. The story as a whole is also a bit too much at points: Wendy gets abused, institutionalised, forced into marriage and then has her daughter kidnapped, and there were occasions where I was begging for a moment or two of lighthearted brevity. For those into dark retellings, this may be less of a problem – it’s certaintly a personal preference on my account.
But the reason Wendy, Darling didn’t always work for me is that the book expects you to be fully engaged with the original Peter Pan story while also skewering it. Peter is a barely a character in Wendy’s story; we mostly see him through flashbacks as she processes his real motivations and the consequences of his actions, and he feels shadowy, half-formed at best. Scenes from the original Peter Pan are often referenced obliquely. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that it left the reader filling in the gaps from the original stories, which meant trying to reconcile the fun character of my childhood with the ominous spectre that this Peter, and it felt incongruous. Though, I should note that Peter does play a more active role in Jane’s story, and he’s legitimately terrifying in his subtle manipulation of the Lost Boys, even if he didn’t quite feel like a version of Peter I recognised (and maybe that’s the point and I should let go of my childhood nostalgia too). Similarly, the attempts to point out the racism in the original aren’t as strong as they could be, because we don’t get to relive the original scenes with Hook and the Indian tribes, meaning I couldn’t remember exactly how bad things were in the films, and therefore really grapple with the changes Wise made.
I am really interested to see what Wise writes next; Wendy, Darling was an evocative story and I’d love to see what they could do with some original gothic or dark fantasy ideas, but I wasn’t sold on it as a retelling of Peter Pan.
Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books. Wendy, Darling was released on 1 June 2021.