I’ll admit, I was largely skeptical when I picked this copy of The Invention of Wings off the shelf at my local Barnes & Noble in early June. Summer reading assignments had just been posted online, and Sue Monk Kidd’s newest novel was the book chosen for the English class I am taking in the fall. Inwardly, I groaned. Not having been a fan of The Secret Life of Bees, which I was required to read this past school year, I dreaded the last few days of summer break when I knew I’d have to sit down and read another of Kidd’s historical fiction novels set in the South. Though I did have a sliver of hope that I’d enjoy The Invention of Wings more than Kidd’s previous novel (the premise of this one was more appealing to me), I disliked The Secret Life of Bees so much that I put off reading it as long as possible.
You can imagine I was shocked to find myself hooked from the very first page.
This novel takes place over the course of 35 years. The story is told from dual perspectives: chapters alternate between the voice of Sarah, who comes from an aristocratic Charleston family, and the voice of Handful, a slave bestowed upon Sarah for her eleventh birthday. The novel is set in the 19th century before the Civil War. Most of the novel takes place in Charleston, though later parts of the novel document Sarah’s life in the North.
Both main characters were extremely realistic, and their individual- yet somehow always connected- plights made my heart ache. I loved Sarah’s brazen younger sister, Nina, who’s part in the story became bigger as the novel went on. There was a rawness to all of the characters; they were unfiltered, unidealized, making the story feel so real that half the time I thought I was reading a real diary and the other half I thought I was a character, too. Even the strongest, cruelest, and roughest characters, like Missus Grimké, Charlotte, and Denmark Vesey, had amazing moments of vulnerability. Reading this novel, I had the same feeling I think I would have if I found an incredibly old diary and read it. I was gripped from beginning to end, and when the book ended, I was strangely disappointed in a way I never expected to be. I wanted more.
The internal conflicts in this novel, especially within Sarah, set it apart. Also, seeing how much influence societal norms, rules, and expectations held over people in this time period really rattled me. Genuinely good people would turn away a friend, a family member, a person in desperate need, if they felt that helping them would hurt their social standing or reputation. It makes me so thankful that I don’t live in a strict, unforgiving society like the United States seemed to be in the 1800s.
The main two themes of conflict in The Invention of Wings are slavery and the subjugation of women. Both slaves and women were treated as property and servants. Both acted as homemakers, albeit in different ways. However, the forms of bondage used to hold both these groups differed tremendously. Slaves were bound by law to their owners, and people of the South used the Bible to justify slavery. Women were bound by society to predetermined fates, and were treated as pariah if they strayed from their traditional roles. The Bible was used to support the inferiority of women, too. As Handful once told Sarah, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.” Both groups suffered from the oppression they faced.
I really and truly learned a lot from this novel. I am thankful that it was required to read for school, because otherwise I would never have considered reading it. I think it’s a book that everyone should read, though I know not everyone will. I fully recommend it. And who knows, maybe I’ll even pick up Sue Monk Kidd’s next novel.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd | Goodreads