When the Moon Was Ours
To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town.
But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
If you’re asking book bloggers to recommend you gorgeously written books, there’s a very good chance Anna-Marie McLemore’s books will be among the first recs. Having only read one of her many anthology contributions before now, I agree with that wholeheartedly. She’s got a way with words! When the Moon Was Ours is so far her most acclaimed work (Stonewall Book Award nominee/honoree!) for obvious reasons, but it still left me wanting somehow?
I could sum up my delight by screaming “Whooooo, trans rep with TWO trans people!” and “Queer, Pakistani, AND Latinx rep!” for a while, but there’s more to the book than that. McLemore spins Sam and Miel’s story with words so lovely that their ripcurrent sweeps you away for a while. It’s novel that fully embraces magical realism’s roots in Latinx culture and delivers the strangest, loveliest little story about a girl with roses growing from her wrist, the water that kept her safe from the rest of the world until an old water tower came down, and four girls–las gringas bonitas, the Bonner sisters–who think Miel’s roses can make them powerful again.
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
The lush writing style also has a way of making you think “wait, what happened?” once you escape from its clutches because it set you adrift from the actual events being written about. Such writing is excellent in short-form works like fairy tales and smaller stories, but it’s easy for the style to make you lose sight of the substance. Recalling the events of a scene you just read shouldn’t be as difficult as this!
That alienation also left me feeling like I knew stuff about Sam and Miel, but I didn’t actually know Sam and Miel as individuals and characters. Sam paints moons for Miel and has been a bacha posh since he was young, but the expectation he’ll soon discard his boy’s clothes to become a woman again is all wrong for him; Miel fears pumpkins, the roses that grow from her wrist, and the Bonner girls. That’s just a list of facts about them. In comparison, it’s easy to detail each Bonner sister’s individual personality and what part that plays in the uncertain sisterhood they’ve returned to now that eldest sister Chloe is back from having her baby. Readers simply get to know them better than we get to know our primary narrators Sam and Miel.
Though it’s not easy to stick with, When the Moon Was Ours is an undeniably well-written story akin to a modern fairy tale. My copy of McLemore’s Wild Beauty certainly is certainly staying on my shelves instead of going in the donation pile!
Miel was drowned by her mother out of love to prevent her presumed destructive future (hints of the La Llorona folklore). Miel grows roses out of her arms. She comes from a magical family where this is a curse. In the process, Miel breaks free from her mother, and her brother and mother follow her into the water and also drown. Miel is suspended in the water tower, until it is released and she comes back to life, alone and confused. Sam is the one who rushes to protect her. Sam is carrying his own secret- he is a bacha posh, who later realizes he is transgendered. Miel understands without explanations or fear. The way this is presented is incredible and beautiful, allowing the reader to have the same understandings.
Sam and Miel have a beautiful relationship as best friends and lovers, which is threatened by the Bonner sisters with hair the color of flames who carry their own secrets and seem to be witches of a type. The Bonner sisters want Miel's roses at any cost and threaten Sam to get them from her. As bullies, the Bonner sisters are terrifying- their punishment to Miel is to lock her in a glass coffin and leave her there, hungry and barely able to breathe. However, they carry their own secrets and burdens, which are in a figurative sense the glass coffin. This can only be broken by the courageous announcement and acceptance of the truth of the way things are.
The story is poetic, imaginative, and captivating. I imagine this book to easily become a classic and is, to me, an important read in how we treat people (some hints of racism and fear of the "other") and the fears/secrets we keep which weigh us down. It is also a poignant romance. I was incredibly moved by the story and writing- this is a book I shall never forget.
Please note that I received an ARC from the publisher through netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
The novel follows best friends Miel and Sam, inseparable since the day Miel fell out of the water tower when she was five. The two are considered strange by their fellow neighbours as roses grow out of Miel’s wrists while nobody knows anything about the life Sam had before he and his mother came to town. He spends his days painting moons and hanging them in the trees for the town’s children, and Miel assists her guardian Aracely in performing spells and curing the townsfolk of their lovesickness. As odd as Miel and Sam are, they are nothing compared to the Bonner girls, four red-haired sisters rumoured to be witches. The Bonner sisters have almost all of the men in the town half in love with them, but their lure is fading and they want Miel’s roses, convinced the flowers wield a power to force love on another. They will do anything to regain their peculiar influence over others, including blackmailing Miel with stories of her past that she wants to forget and threatening to reveal the life-changing secret Sam has tried so hard to protect.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first starting reading this novel. I had a difficult time placing the genre of the story as the book contains both fantasy and magical elements set in present-time reality. I have to admit it took a while to assimilate to this as McLemore never explains the magical elements; it is just a part of the world around the characters and something they accept and live with. Once I wrapped my head around that, the novel completely pulled me in and I wasn’t aware of anything aside from the words on the page. The prose was exquisite and I continually reread certain paragraphs because the sentences and wording were just so beautiful. Her writing is so lyrical and poetic; I have already borrowed another of her novels from my local library, that’s how much I loved her writing.
Miel and Sam were wonderful protagonists and their relationship really drove the plot forward. I caught myself flicking forward a few chapters so I could see if they were together, and had to force myself to stop as I didn’t want to accidentally read any spoilers. Their backstories were both so intriguing: Miel is haunted by her past and what happened to her before she fell out of the water tower, and Sam is terrified that the town will discover that he is actually transgendered. I have never read a fantasy novel with a transgendered character before and I am so excited this was my first. McLemore deals with the topical issues surrounding gender dysphoria that we so often hear about in the media and she does this in a considerate and sensitive manner. Sam has trouble deciding how he wants to define himself and the novel continually makes reference to the fact that it is not anyone’s business besides his. Coming out as LGBT, whether in a small town or large city, is daunting for anyone and When the Moon Was Ours does a fantastic job of explaining LGBT issues and re-educating small-minded ignorant people. The message that I took away from this book is that you should accept and love who you are inside, no matter what the outside may look like.
I had a love-hate relationship with the Bonner sisters. There were times I wanted to hug them and other times I wanted to yell at them. I really enjoyed Peyton’s character, but her inability to stand up against her sister angered me, especially as Peyton understood that what she and her sisters were doing was wrong. I felt pity for both Chloe and Lian, as the entire town gossips about them behind their backs. As for Ivy, I disliked her from beginning to end. I don’t care about her motives, her attempts to blackmail Miel and Sam had me seething.
My heart was ripped into a million pieces then put back together, over and over again as I read this book. What made me love it even more was reading the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, which was so incredibly touching. When the Moon Was Ours is a book everyone needs to read.