I hardly know where to start gushing about this book. Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of classic Gothic novels! THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER (a retelling of Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau) reads like a classic Gothic novel but with more relatable characters for the modern reader. This book has to be taken as a whole, not broken into bits and pieces, because it is a surreal, tense, dark experience from the first word to the very last.
Let's start with the setting. Absolutely perfect. And I don't just mean the time period. I mean Juliet's job at King's College, where she works as a maid at the beginning of the book, to the ship she travels on to get to her missing father, to the island of lush beauty and horrific terrors--all of it works on every level. The setting is a character in the book, and it adds to the atmospheric tension that pervades every page.
The characters are exactly what a Gothic novel needs. Secretive, damaged, pawns and predators ... and all of them seen through the eyes of Juliet, who is a flawed narrator (as all of us are) because of her background, her emotional wounds and fears, and her terrible certainty that the insanity that grips her father is coming for her next. I especially enjoyed Juliet's intense scientific curiosity, and her unflinching courage. She's a heroine worth rooting for.
We see the two boys who are interested in Juliet from her eyes only, and so we get them in glimpses and pieces as they stand out to her or as they come in contact with her. It isn't the simple, straightforward romance of modern books. It's a romance struggling to unfold in an era where women are dressed in silk and expected to marry men they barely know, and it takes place on an island where that convention holds steady even while horror is playing out in the background.
I realize some readers will see Juliet, Montgomery, and Edward as a love triangle, but I do not. Instead, I see it as Juliet caught between the boy she trusted as a child and the boy who reflects her inner torment as if he's being tormented too. Once truths begin to be revealed, the lack of a love triangle becomes even more apparent. Ms. Shepherd did an admirable job of delivering flawed, nuanced characters within the confines of her first person narrative, and I enjoyed the journey very much.
Finally, the plot. The atmospheric darkness in the book kept me feeling off-balance and uneasy for the entire story. That is a true testament to skilled writing and a solid plot. I was constantly searching for the wrong note, the lie, the slip-up that would unveil someone's secret because, like Juliet, I was absolutely sure there was more going on than I could see. The plot builds with the kind of delicious tension that keeps a reader turning pages, and the climax kept me absolutely riveted. When I finally turned the last page, I just sat and stared at a wall for a while because I needed time to process what I'd just experienced.
What Left Me Wanting More:
Nothing. This was a perfect-for-me book. It's worth mentioning that for those who are unfamiliar with the original book, or who are younger or more sensitive readers, there are two scenes with brief cruelty to animals. The scenes are integral to the plot rather than being gratuitous, and as a fierce animal lover myself, I found that they heightened my distress for Juliet and my certainty that her situation was increasingly precarious.
THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER is a lovely Gothic story whose nuanced characters, atmospheric tension, and skillful prose combine to create an experience that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.