Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders

Image of Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders: A Novel
Release Date: 
August 18, 2015
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

Julianna Baggott can do anything with words. Anything, I tell you.

Maybe you thought you had language for the sacred act of carrying a life inside your own. Read Baggott and you’ll never think of pregnancy in the same way again:

“I knew, medically and rationally, that I was creating a human being, but I had no real concept of it. The idea is too absurd. How could anyone really believe that I was making boned hinges, muscles and ligaments of webbed pulleys attached to a system of varied weights, the marble work of skin, doughy thighs, the piping trim of dainty veins, rubbery joints, electric wiring, enamel—each tooth a white machine that would one day know how to muscle up like a razor clam.”

Or maybe you thought you knew what storytelling was, why it exists, how it succeeds. Let Baggott reframe the equation: “All stories worth telling are love stories.”

Or maybe you thought you had adequately explained the miracle of a sleeping pill to your lover in the pale morning after. Baggott has this for you:

“I love how sure-handed the drug is. At first, nothing, but then a little tug on the brain. Starting at the top of the skull, it pulls down something thick, almost woolen, that settles over one lobe and then another. I sense the woolliness until I no longer sense it, and when I no longer sense it, I’m asleep.”

You have no choice but to agree with me. Baggott, the author of numerous novels under a panoply of names (not to mention a gentling force of actual wisdom on the teaching and speaking circuit) is genius material.

In her new book, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, Baggott has slipped stories inside of stories, creating a button bag of treasures that will appeal as much to grown-up readers of A Series of Unfortunate Events as it will to those who adore old gangster movies, Zelda Fitzgerald lore, or those moments in Alice McDermott novels when the zeitgeist of a family is revealed by a single exposed seam.

Wonders is a generational tale about a writer, Harriet Wolf, and the books, daughter, and granddaughters she has left behind. It’s about that seventh book which has gone missing in the wake of Wolf’s death, and about how that book (expertly stashed away) contains everything the residual family needs to keep itself somehow whole. Will the book be found? Will its story be true? Will all the questions that have haunted the family finally stop their noisome thrashing?

Told in a chorus of voices, spliced with the pages of the missing novel itself, Wonders is deliberately, playfully strange. It has been made scrumptious with oddities of every conceivable sort—the angel imagery of a home for feeble-minded children, the kinetics of bad guys, the mystery of the house where Harriet has died and where her daughter and youngest grandchild still live, the lore of hiding places. And yet, despite the considerable story here, Baggott takes the time to speak truly—about love, about books, about fame, about what it is to be alive.

I leave you with this:

“Night was the hardest. We feared the dark. Grief—melancholy—tells the brain, Too much, enough of this world. The brain is ticking all day, keeping up with the noise and images of daily life, but once you close your eyes at night, the brain lights the skull and asserts itself without the interruption of vision and sound. It’s stronger than you can imagine, the lit skull at work on its own. Its will is tougher and you’re tired. You must bend to it.”