December 29, 2007

A Northern Light

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Published in the UK as A Gathering Light
Young Adult Fiction
Rating: 4/5 (Very good)
Finished 12/23/07

Book Description

Mattie Gokey has a word for everything. She collects words, stores them up as a way of fending off the hard truths of her life, the truths that she can't write down in stories.

The fresh pain of her mother's death. The burden of raising her sisters while her father struggles over his brokeback farm. The mad welter of feelings Mattie has for handsome but dull Royal Loomis, who says he wants to marry her. And the secret dreams that keep her going--visions of finishing high school, going to college in New York City, becoming a writer.

Yet when the drowned body of a young woman turns up at the hotel where Mattie works, all her words are useless. But in the dead woman's letters, Mattie again finds her voice, and a determination to live her own life.

Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this coming-of-age novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.

With Christmas quickly approaching, I knew I needed to choose a book that would hold my attention, but be light enough to pick up and set aside as need be. After a few failed attempts with other novels, A Northern Light proved to be just the book I was looking for. I enjoyed Donnelly's narrative style, alternating between past and present, the suspense building, yet never becoming predictable. Mattie is a loveable character, and I found myself hoping things would work out well for her. While not entirely a happily-ever-after, the ending was quite satisfying.

Favorite passages:

The Fulton Chain Floating Library is only a tiny room, an overeager closet, really, belowdecks in Charlie Eckler's pickle boat. It is nothing like the proper library they have in Old Forge, but it has its own elements of surprise. Mr. Eckler uses the room to store his wares, and when he finally gets around to moving a chest of tea or a sack of cornmeal, you never knew what you might find. And once in a while, the main library in Herkimer sends up a new book or two. It's nice to get your hands on a new book before everyone else does. While the pages are still clean and white and the spine hasn't been snapped. While it still smells like words and not Mrs. Higby's violet water or Weaver's mamma's fried chicken or my aunt Jossie's liniment.


I used to wonder what would happen if characters in books could change their fates. What if the Dashwood sisters had had money? Maybe Elinor would have gone traveling and left Mr. Ferrars dithering in the drawing room. What if Catherine Earnshaw had just married Heathcliff to begin with and spared everyone a lot of grief? What if Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale had gotten onboard that ship and left Roger Chillingworth far behind? I felt sorry for these characters sometimes, seeing as they couldn't ever break out of their stories, but then again, if they could have talked to me, they'd likely have told me to stuff all my pity and condescension, for neither could I.


The main house has four stories plus an attic. Forty rooms in all. When the hotel is fully booked, as it is this week, there are over a hundred people in the building. All strangers to one another, coming and going. Eating and laughing and breathing and sleeping and dreaming under the same roof.

They leave things behind sometimes, the guests. A bottle of scent. A crumpled handkerchief. A pearl button that fell off a dress and rolled under a bed. And sometimes they leave other sorts of things. Things you can't see. A sigh trapped in a corner. Memories tangled in the curtains. A sob fluttering against the windowpane like a bird that flew in and can't get back out. I can feel these things. They dart and crouch and whisper.

I've had this book for a few years now and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. Even better, I now have an ARC of The Winter Rose (Donnelly's sequel to The Tea Rose). I can't think of a better choice to start off the New Year!

Go here and here for further details of novel, as well as Donnelly's inspiration for writing it.


  1. I really enjoy all of Jennifer Donnelly's books!

  2. Hi Lesley,
    Enjoy the blog and the thoughtful reviews.
    Good reading in the New Year.

  3. Anonymous3:59 AM

    I have picked this book up at Borders several times and then put it down. I think the cover attracted me. I'll have to add it to my list. Good review, Les!

  4. I guess Donnelly is an author I need to try. I've seen her name a lot lately and all positive.

  5. Anonymous3:10 PM

    I missed reading "The Northern Lights" by this author...sounds like a must read to me.


  6. I'm so glad you liked it! I have a signed copy. Are you green? ;P

    Just stopped by to wish you a Happy New Year and Happy Reading in 2008! :D

  7. Marg - I'm really looking forward to The Winter Rose! I have a couple of long flights coming up this month, so I'm thinking I'll save it for that trip.

    Lisa - Glad you're enjoying the blogs and reviews. Thanks for stopping by.

    Kay - I think you'd enjoy the book. The mystery isn't too difficult to figure out (if you don't already know the premise for which the book was written), but Donnelly does a nice job with the pacing and suspense.

    Jenclair - She's definitely one I'd seek out to read more of in the future!

    Gayla - Yes, it's definitely worthwhile. I think you'd enjoy the mystery, setting and characters.

    Maggie - Yes, I'm green with envy. Lucky you!! Happy New Year to you, too. I just took a peek at your running blog. I'm inspired!!

  8. I just mooched this book. Can't wait to read it. Nice review, Les.

  9. Booklogged - I've gone back and forth, trying to decide if this is one I want to keep. I'm trying to only hang on to the big winners, but I'm not sure I'm ready to part with this one quite yet. I'm glad you found a copy to mooch. Look forward to your review.

  10. Those are great quotes! I've had this book for a few years too. Maybe this will be the year I finally get around to it?

  11. Dear Les,

    Thank you so much for posting such a thoughtful and detailed review of my novel, A Northern Light, on your site. I really appreciate it! I'm glad you liked it, and I hope you enjoy Rose books, too. They are historical, like ANL, but a bit more rip-roaring. I wrote them as an homage to the big dramatic epics I loved as a kid, books like A Woman of Substance and The Thornbirds.

    Thanks again, and thanks for such an interesting book site!

    With best wishes,


  12. Nat - It's a fairly quick read, at least I thought so. I'm still thinking about the main characters and enjoyed talking about the book to a customer at work the other day (as I was handselling The Tea Rose & The Winter Rose). I hope you can get to it this year, as I think you'd enjoy it.

  13. Jennifer - Wow!! What a lovely surprise to get your comment today. It's been a little while since I finished the book, yet I still find myself thinking about Mattie and her friends at the hotel. To me, that's a sign of a very good book; one that I'm not yet quite ready to say goodbye to.

    I'm so excited about The Winter Rose. I got an ARC from late last month and I plan to take it with me on a trip next week. I think it'll be perfect for the long flights. I read The Tea Rose in 2004 and it made my Top Ten for that year. I had it on an endcap at work (B&N) during the holidays and had great fun handselling it to customers. Since I'm planning to read the sequel, perhaps I'll post my old review here on my blog.

    Now I'm off to read your interview in Estella's Revenge! I just noticed it today!

  14. Anonymous7:32 PM

    Jennifer, I love the fact that you said the Rose books are an homage to the big sagas of years past (Woman is Substance, etc.). I loved reading those books and that is the first thing I thought of when I saw the cover of 'Tea Rose'. I'm looking forward to reading it.


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