A Review of Liz Michalski’s “Darling Girl”
Peter Pan as a Bad Man
When my nephew was a toddler, he was a big fan of the animated cartoon Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Since he was such a huge fanatic of the show, for his second birthday, my family thought it would be a great idea if my dad dressed up as Captain Hook for the birthday party. For some reason, my dad weaseled out of the dress-up, and I was forced to go in his place. Well, my nephew wasn’t convinced by my act — I’m not sure if he wound up crying or just was indifferent to my appearance. I can’t remember. I do know, however, that there’s photographic evidence of me in costume somewhere in a family photo album. (Evidence which must be destroyed.) So, yes, I do have my connections to the world of Peter Pan, and thus that is my entrance to reviewing this book. Darling Girl, which is Liz Michalski’s sophomore novel, is a modern-day imagining set in a world where Peter Pan is very real — and he’s something of a bastard. Fans of the original J.M. Barrie novel will probably most appreciate Darling Girl, as the timelines are analogous to Barrie’s work and not, say, the Disney version.
This is a pretty plot-heavy book, but if I were to give a pencil sketch outline, it would be to start with the fact that the protagonist, Holly Darling, is the descendant of Wendy Darling — the young woman who originally had adventures with Peter Pan. Holly is the owner of a New York City cosmetics company that’s about to make the jump to the major leagues. She does have tragedy in her past, though. Her husband and one of her twin sons perished in an automobile accident some time ago. Her daughter, Eden, had an accident, too, by falling out of a tree — she is now in a coma. However, her blood has elements in it that keep Holly’s living son, Jack, healthy. Thus, when Eden goes missing, Holly automatically assumes Peter Pan is behind all of this and is on a plane to London with Jack as soon as you can say, “pixie dust.” The plan is to find Eden so Jack can continue to have vital signs. And so it goes from there.
Darling Girl is a fun, frothy novel, but even though any romantic notions are kind of muted, it does read like a romance novel with its conversational style. Thus, it will probably be of most interest to people who possess a womb. It’s a book about mothers — which is apt considering it was released a few days before Mother’s Day in 2022 — and of family secrets. And, yes, various characters from the Peter Pan universe do make their appearances, which will be fun for fans of the original novel. If you’re more familiar with the Disney-fied version of this, you might be disappointed as there are some rather mature themes here. (I’d say that it probably would boast a PG-13 rating if this were turned into a movie, although there is a sex scene that isn’t too explicit.) Still, this is a not bad, enjoyable novel if you’re into this kind of thing and like your reading fare to be on the lighter side — not necessarily in tone, but in writing execution.
Still, Darling Girl is far from being perfect. The main liability is that the novel’s real star, Peter Pan, is usually nowhere to be seen — the bulky middle third of the book involves a rather laborious search for him in London. It plods on and on and on. When we finally do meet him in the present-day part of the book towards the end, firecrackers go off. A real opportunity, then, has been kind of squandered. Darling Girl has a very The Last Starfighter problem, then: you have a bad guy who doesn’t get much airtime. And what this book needs more of is more of the bad guy to push the plot along, especially since the bad guy is so alluring. But there’s more to this novel that causes it to stumble. The other major problem is that Holly’s backstory is teased out in little bits and pieces, leading the reader to wonder if any plot holes are being created. I think Darling Girl is eventually airtight, but we never get a true sense of what happened to Holly’s husband and son other than they were killed in a car on a slick road on a rainy day. Yes, but how? Was it driver error? A head-on collision? What happened? The novel remains silent on this.
And I also suppose that it doesn’t help that the novel is kind of a bit silly at times. For instance, a private investigator that Holly winds up meeting happens to have a hook for a right hand. I know this is an allusion to the Barrie novel (which, again, can be conversely a fun thing), but stuff like this is pretty groan-inducing. However, I may be just kvetching at this point because Darling Girl isn’t a terrible read, only a mediocre one. To be honest with you, I did kind of lose interest in the book in its middle third when not much happens — though the novel redeems itself towards the climax. There’s some real pop and sizzle to the end of Darling Girl, which makes one wonder if this was the sort of thing that really could have been deftly edited a bit better. The whole plot points about untangling Holly’s secrets are just not very interesting, given that we know what other characters don’t. In any event, though, Darling Girl is a clever read. If you’re a woman and have an affinity for fairy tales, you’ll probably lap this up. For the rest of us, it could have been written with a bit more skill. Again, though, I’m quibbling. At the very least, Darling Girl is enjoyable enough and won’t leave J. M. Barrie rolling in his grave.
Liz Michalski’s Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan was published by Dutton on May 3, 2022.
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