We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach
Published by Random House on July 2, 2019
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg: 3.15 (as of 2019-08-13)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. All quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.
Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative. Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.
We Went to the Woods is a quietly intense novel following five not-quite-yet adults as they leave the comforts of the modern world to create a commune of sorts in upstate New York. All are there for different reasons but the narrator of the novel, Mack, is attempting to escape her infamy after a very public experiment goes awry. While the threads of a mystery are woven throughout, this is very much not a thriller; the focus is held much more deeply on the characters and their relationships and introspections than on the plot itself.
Even if most of my days felt useless, days where I came home with some cash felt like they hadn’t been entirely wasted. This depressed me, this feeling that my life mattered only as it was measured out in paper dollars.
Mack herself is quite relatable in some ways: she has fallen into this tightly knit friend group and feels more like an outsider than anything else. As readers, we are not privy to the ins and outs of the four other characters and must slowly figure them out alongside Mack. There is a strong element of voyeurism to this and it was difficult not to be torn between wanting things to settle down and wanting to watch the drama unfurling.
Could I learn to live? The clouds opened up and I let them drench me, waiting to feel something. The intensity I wanted seemed close, attainable — the chill I felt out here and the coziness I would feel inside, with them? Was that what I hoped for? The distance between two feelings?
I found the parallels drawn between past and present to be quite interesting. Mack begins researching older communities that had struck out from society at large in similar ways. It seems obvious that humanity keeps making the same mistakes rather than learning from those who came before them. Even when drawing comparisons to the Collective, another nearby commune, this much is obvious. Whilst Mack’s group has struck out alone in an effort to avoid existing groups and their mistakes, this means they simply turn around and make their own.
But action is not something that has ever come easily to me; I wait for others’ decisiveness, not choosing for myself. Never recognizing that my passivity, too, is a choice.
There is a lot to be said about the portrayal of sexuality in this novel, and I’m intrigued to see what others have gotten from it. It is clear that Mack’s draw to the others in the group is firmly rooted in the erotic tension they all share. This is something that Mack herself focuses heavily on, literally obsessed with the physical relationships between each of them. There seems to be little delineation as far as gender or sexual orientation goes and most of the focus is on “free love” though it is clear that not all of the characters enjoy participating in non-monogamy. Indeed, it’s clear that any lack of boundaries is more forced than natural, particularly as secret upon secret is slowly unearthed.
But then, how can one small group of committed individuals hope to alter a whole society bent on injustice?
As much as I enjoyed the novel, there were some aspects that I felt could have been handled better. For one, Mack’s infamy is a point of interest throughout the book that I felt was played up a bit too much. It is quite some time before the reader finds out what had happened and in my opinion, the eventual reveal was quite anticlimactic. It felt heavy-handed and clunky in the moment and I felt it could have been woven in better. Aside from that, the reason itself just confused me. Sure, what Mack did was terrible, but I was expecting something so much worse and felt let down by what had promised to be a major confession. Where Mack ends up in the end also irritated me and seemed like a throwaway, but that’s something I can’t get into without spoilers.
“That is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jack said, musing. “The idea that you don’t have a home inside your own head. That breaks my heart.”
Speaking of which, what an ending it was! While the tension slowly builds throughout the novel and a climax is strongly alluded to (there are a lot of “had I known what I was coming…” reflections), I was still unprepared for where it led. Again this is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but I’d compare Caite Dolan-Leach’s writing to a well-done score: it is easy not to realize how much it is impacting you until you realize you are taut with anxiety and all hell is about to break loose.
“Do you think it’s because of the pesticides?” I asked finally. “I think it’s because of the whole damn world, Wee Mack. There’s nowhere to get away from the poison.”
Anyway, yeah this is a doozy of a read. I wasn’t sure what to think of it as I progressed but I have to say that the last act really cemented things for me. I was actually racing through the pages and dreaded the idea of not finishing before I would have to put it down. There’s much more to think about than what I touched on here, and even what I discussed could be analyzed at great length. I’m really interested in seeing what others have gotten out of this, and definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a slower, more intense read.