Days of Wonder

Image of Days of Wonder: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 23, 2024
Algonquin Books
Reviewed by: 

“a page-turning exploration of love, motherhood, and secrecy.”

Days of Wonder, the newest novel by the award-winning and bestselling author Caroline Leavitt, is as intricately patterned as a high-quality Persian rug.

Helen Levy becomes pregnant as a teenager, is kicked out of her home in Brooklyn’s insular Hasidic community, and raises her daughter as a single mother. That daughter, Ella, also becomes pregnant as a teen and also loses her home, but she is forced to give up her own daughter for adoption.

One alcoholic father abuses his son; another alcoholic father, 600 miles away, abuses his wife. Helen finds solace in hiding messages into the hems of dresses she sews; Ella sends messages more directly to readers of her newspaper advice column. After Ella’s life is wrecked in part because of her boyfriend’s gardening hobby, Helen wrecks his garden.

While some of these plot echoes might seem forced in less capable hands, Leavitt reinvents them into a page-turning exploration of love, motherhood, and secrecy.

After a fight with Ella, Helen thinks, this is “the stupid secret they never told you about being a parent, how from the moment your child is born, they’re moving away from you.”

The book certainly starts with a bang, as Ella emerges from prison into a swarm of news cameras, “the reporters rushing toward her, their voices like thorns.”

Ella was in prison because, when she was 15 years old, she had confessed under coercion to the attempted murder of her boyfriend Jude’s father, a well-connected New York City superior court judge. Thanks to an investigation by a crusading journalist, her case was reopened, and now she has been freed after six years instead of the 25 to which she was originally sentenced.

Helen is bursting to wrap Ella into a shared life in New York. Ella, however, wants to find her own daughter, whom she reluctantly ceded after giving birth in prison. She heads out to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she believes the little girl, now named Carla, is living with her adoptive parents. There, after changing her own last name and lying about her criminal record, Ella gets the advice columnist job.

The story is told mainly through Helen’s and Ella’s alternating points of view, shifting back and forth in time from Helen’s childhood, to Ella and Jude’s romance, to Ella’s release from prison and the aftermath.

Just when a reader might think the next move is obvious, the book constantly takes a surprise turn. For instance, teenage Jude isn’t a stereotypically spoiled rich boy toying with the infatuated, far less privileged Ella. If his father is a cold fish, well, he might have an unexpected reason for that.

The last 50 or so pages are almost impossible to put down.

A couple of key plot hinges, however, are awkward. It’s hard to believe that a lawyer would leave the name and address of the family who adopted Carla conveniently accessible with just two clicks of her computer keyboard while she goes out to get Ella a suspiciously requested glass of water. Wouldn’t the lawyer ask her secretary to bring the water? Or at least log off the incriminating documents more thoroughly? And Carla’s adoptive father becomes too much of a cartoon villain—the kind of cliché this book avoids so skillfully with Jude’s father.

But overall, Leavitt is spot-on with her insight into people’s unreliable emotions, needs, and failings. Her characters by and large are real human beings that we come to care about.

After she finds Carla in Ann Arbor, Ella essentially stalks the little girl, greedily analyzing and cataloguing every slight action. When she strikes up a friendly conversation with Carla’s adoptive mother, Marianna, at the playground, she tells herself: “Just because you got to know someone didn’t mean you had to tell them every secret you had. You could have companionship, someone to sit and talk with, someone to join for coffee. Plus, the more she could see Marianna, the more she could see Carla.”

It sounds so reasonable, something we’d all like to believe. Can’t companionship be that simple, even if love never is?