Krassi Zourkova’s Wildalone mixes the Bulgarian legend of the samodivi (dangerous, magical women who lure men to their doom, linked to the Greek maenads) with an unusual retelling of the Orpheus myth, set on the campus of Princeton University. Eighteen-year-old heroine Thea Slavin isn’t looking for magic when she travels from Bulgaria to the United States for her freshman year of college. An award-winning pianist, she is supported by a music scholarship and welcomed by the music department with delight, but she hasn’t chosen Princeton for the sake of her musical career. Instead, she’s secretly hoping to discover the truth behind her older sister’s death, which occurred under mysterious circumstances at Princeton fifteen years earlier.
Rational Thea, who only learned of her sister’s existence shortly before her arrival, expects to investigate an ordinary, cold-case murder. However, her sister Elza was passionately obsessed by the folklore of the samodivi and the rites of Dionysus. Following in Elza’s footsteps, Thea soon discovers a dark, magic-infused world hidden within the Ivy League and a pair of mysterious brothers who know more about Elza than she realizes.
Zourkova herself attended Princeton, and the college setting is rich and immersive. Reading about Thea’s life in the dorms, as she is swept into a Princeton-specific whirl of scheduled social events (many of them infused with class issues and old money), is utterly fascinating. The culture clash that Thea faces, as an international student thrown into a new world full of hierarchies she doesn’t understand, is compelling and real, and Thea’s musical life is beautifully described. Throughout the novel, Zourkova uses rich, sensuous language that could be taken by readers as either intoxicating or suffocating, depending on personal preference…but it works perfectly for Thea’s musical obsessions.
The best part of the book, however, is definitely the fantastical element. The mixture of dangerous samodivi and wild Dionysian rites works perfectly in the dark shadows of the Princeton social world as described by Zourkova, and there’s a Gothic, brooding tone to the novel that makes the magic feel very real as Thea is drawn deeper and deeper into the mysteries. Zourkova’s Princeton is a wonderful setting for ancient spirits and forbidden rites.
The only aspect that may not work as well for readers is Thea’s love life, which soon becomes the main focus of the novel. Shortly after her arrival at Princeton, she decides, after two brief sightings, that she has met the love of her life. Afterwards, she thinks that she has met him again, so she allows herself to be swept into a relationship that doesn’t feel as good as she’d expected it to. The explanation swiftly comes when she realizes she’s accidentally started dating the wrong brother, not the man she loves…and from then on, her decision-making becomes increasingly difficult to understand.
Throughout this book, I personally struggled with the question of how much it was fair to blame Zourkova for Thea’s emotional passivity, as she silently yearns for one man, Jake, while continuing to date his arrogant and controlling older brother, Rhys. It would be easier to empathize, as a reader, if she were also attracted to Rhys, or if Rhys were equally compelling in a different way–but she frequently dislikes Rhys’s actions and understands very quickly that she made a mistake in beginning to date him. So, as a reader, I was left baffled by the fact that she never once even considers the idea of breaking up with Rhys (although she often fantasizes about Jake stepping in and “claiming her” from his brother, and worries that Jake is a wimp for not doing so).
The situation (conveyed in emotionally intense first-person narration) is particularly frustrating to follow because Rhys is repugnant in so many ways. At one point he comes close to raping Thea and is only finally persuaded to listen to her refusals when she reveals that she is a virgin…thus giving a reasonable “excuse” to be allowed to refuse sex. Throughout the relationship, he gives off strong warning signals of being a classic abuser, and Thea is warned off him by her friends. However, even as she sighs over his brother, she accepts every new stage Rhys demands in their intense relationship, including hot make-out scenes in front of Jake. Her internal angst over the situation never results in a single positive step on her own behalf.
Of course, college is a particularly fraught time for many young women as they try to figure out what romance really means. Looking back on my own freshman year in college convinced me that it would be unfair to blame Zourkova for the fact that Thea, an eighteen-year-old girl in a foreign country, doesn’t have the confidence to stand up for herself. It would be even more unfair to blame Thea for not possessing a more mature understanding of relationships. Therefore, it can’t be considered implausible that Thea doesn’t take any action based on her emotional needs, even though her extreme passivity does make her a difficult heroine to follow. Still, the mythological aspects of the plot are so intriguing, they outweighed my issues with Thea’s emotional arc for most of the novel.
However, as the book continues, Thea’s emotions begin to veer wildly, without any apparent reason except to move the romantic plot forward. She repeatedly makes statements about her own emotions and desires that left me blinking in confusion as I tried to figure out exactly where those massive emotional shifts had come from. The end of the novel–which sets up a potential sequel–relies on a final series of emotional flip-flops on her part that felt so irrational and unexplained that they left me utterly mystified…and with a depressing feeling that I had lost all faith in the coherence of the story.
The fantasy elements of Wildalone are rich and original, and its setting is compelling. However, the emotional arc of the heroine is so unconvincing that I won’t personally be looking for the sequel.