The Witch Elmby Tana French Published 09 Oct 2018
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Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.
"The Witch Elm" Reviews
I actually didn't love a Tana French book... the world is broken. I just knew I jinxed it by writing that first paragraph in my review of The Secret Place.
I keep trying to convince myself to bump this up a star because it's hard to believe Tana French can write anything that isn't amazing. It's definitely not a bad book, but The Witch Elm - French's first standalone outside of her Dublin Murder Squad series - just didn't contain a lot of the stuff I've loved from this author.
To start with, I feel like my love for French is centred around her awesome, snarky, flawed, messy, human detectives. The crimes are whatever; the detectives - their voices, quirks, passions and personal histories - are what make her books so damn addictive. I shipped Rob and Cassie so hard in In the Woods, and Cassie herself made the implausible plot of The Likeness actually okay. I will probably never get over Frank and Rosie from Faithful Place. And that's before we've got to Kennedy, Moran and the ferocious Antoinette Conway.
Toby? He just doesn't compare. He's an asshole, but it's not that because sometimes assholes can be interesting (I might want to rewrite that sentence later). It's more that he's obnoxiously clueless, a self-proclaimed "lucky bastard" wrapped in a bubble of his own privilege. He's tall, blond and handsome, works at a PR firm, has a loving girlfriend and a group of good friends, and pretty much gets away with everything. He's a person who thinks this about poor, homeless people:
They could have gone to school. Instead of spending their time sniffing glue and breaking the wing mirrors off cars. They could have got jobs. The recession's over; there's no reason for anyone to be stuck in the muck unless they actually choose to be.
Flaws are interesting, but Toby's casual misogyny, judgement of others, and condescension make him extremely irritating. Plus, French's narrators are typically smart and intuitive, so Toby's head-scratching was frustrating.
I think I can trace a lot of my issues back to Toby. For example, I usually enjoy the long-winded nature of Tana French's books. She can get away with waffling on because I genuinely enjoy learning details about the characters, and listening to them have pages of dialogue about something unrelated to the plot. But I was so uninterested in Toby that huge chunks of this book made me want to go to sleep.
It takes so long to get to the main mystery, too. I get the point of the lengthy build-up in order to understand Toby as a character - someone who has been handed everything in life without having to face the struggles others would have, and someone who cannot believe it when he meets his first misfortune - but that didn't make it any more enjoyable to get through. It's a good hundred pages before the main story even rears its head.
I also can't deny that I miss the exciting investigations and police procedure the detectives usually take us through.
But I don't want this to get too negative. French does a lot of excellent things in this book and she digs into something interesting with Toby: how someone's luck, privilege, whatever-you-want-to-call-it can really affect not just a person's physical circumstances but their entire outlook on life. He's a conceptually fascinating individual, but it was so hard to find sympathy for him. It was this, in the end, that made me unable to care who the murderer was.
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OH MY GOD, IT'S HERE! AND IT'S NOT AN ARC - IT'S A FINISHED COPY AND IT'S MIIIIIIINE! goodbye, rest of day. you belong to tana french now.
UPDATE - while my plan to corner an unscrupulous intern (harlequin presents #945: cornering the unscrupulous intern) may have failed, the universe has provided, and i am going to be reviewing this for l.a. review of books - ARC is en route. A MOST FRABJOUS DAY, INDEED!!!
these are the penguin random house offices in nyc. i am prepared to camp out in front of them until some kindly intern slips me an ARC of this.
2 and 4 stars. If I could give this a dual rating, I would!
Explanation of rating: I had 5-star expectations for The Witch Elm--Tana French is one of my favorite authors and while I haven’t loved all of her books, I really enjoyed the most recent installments of the Murder Squad series. Unfortunately, my expectations were not met. There were parts of the Witch Elm that I loved, but others not so much.
It’s hard to describe The Witch Elm--it’s part mystery, part thriller, part family drama. Primarily, it is a psychological character study.
Toby has had all the luck in the world. He has natural good looks and things come easily to him: his jobs, his friends, and his girlfriend. He comes from a loving upper-class Dublin family, who can offer financial support when needed. Needless to say, Toby hasn’t faced many struggles in his young life, until one night when his luck runs out and his life changes forever. The Witch Elm chronicles Toby’s decline from golden boy to an empty shell of a man.
Toby is the primary unreliable narrator. I enjoyed getting inside of his head. I was riveted for about the first 20%--Toby’s voice is charismatic and I couldn't wait to hear more and learn more about him. But then NOTHING happens for quite some time. Yes, the reader learns more details about Toby’s family and his current struggles, but these parts could have been edited down quite a bit. What bothered me was not that there wasn’t much happening and the amount of information provided seemed superfluous. This is a repeated pattern throughout the book: drama- nothing- drama nothing- drama. It seems purposefully done to fully give the reader a full view of Toby’s mental decline, but I feel like the same impact could have been achieved without a full-on recap of every minute of Toby's life. If you are a reader who does not like reading every minute detail about a character’s life, you might struggle with this book.
On the other hand, there are elements of this novel that are fascinating. Tana French certainly knows how to write a sentence; her characters are finely crafted and well-developed. The setting is multidimensional and takes on a life of its own. I really enjoyed the ending and having the opportunity to witness a complete view of Toby’s transformation. While this didn’t wholly work for me, I would still recommend for those who enjoy unreliable narrators and detailed character studies.
I received an ARC of this book from Edelweiss and Penguin Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.
Love LOVE and more LOVE for The Witch Elm by the amazing Tana French!!
Amicable Toby is a happy-go-lucky guy who fancies himself as one the "The Lucky Ones." He has a great job, although he did create a major mess there - but he sorted out his mess so it's all good. He has an amazing girlfriend to whom he is faithful, except for a bit of a roving eye. And he has two terrific mates who love him, at least he thinks they do. But Toby's luck is about to change when he is brutally beaten and robbed in his own apartment. Left for dead, in and out of consciousness for weeks, Toby is trying to put his life back together again while recuperating at his uncle's home, The Ivy House, where he and his two cousins summered throughout their childhood and teens. That is, until a human skull is found in the Wyche Elm, yes a cute play on words there, isn't it? Poor Toby - is anything that he thought true and real actually what it had seemed?
Let me be frank with you, I only dabble in Tana French's series, The Dublin Murder Squad. There are those that I absolutely adore and then there are those that I barely make it through. French does such an incredible, amazing job at developing her characters that if I don't connect with them, I don't enjoy the book. The Witch Elm, however, is a stand-alone and I love - have I already used the word love - Toby! My son's name is Toby and, ironically, my Toby and this Toby are very, VERY similar. It's not hard to see why I connected with the book, is it?
More importantly, though, French creates a supporting cast of characters that are quirky, irritating, affable, hilarious and oh so very flawed. Through them, as they either look for the killer or attempt to cover up for the killer, we learn about family, forgiveness, love, mistakes, second-chances and, sadly, death. While there is definitely mystery and suspense here, this is not a "thriller." It is a slow simmering, beautifully written examination of family, particularly a family in crisis.
Interestingly, as I have read other reviews and previews of the book, they seem to be divided into die-hard fans of the DMS and the rest of us and the ratings reflect that division. This is a book that stands on its own as a marvelously written, creative work that is well worth reading by die-hard fans as well as those of us who simply appreciate a well told tale. Well done Ms. French!
FIVE emerald green Irish Stars for The Witch Elm.
Lucky, genial Toby meets the guys for a night out to celebrate his circumvention of a potentially career-wrecking incident at work. Afterwards, he is nearly beaten to death by intruders and his life changes dramatically. He lands at Ivy House to care for his terminally ill uncle and to recover from his own serious injuries. A skull is found in the Wych Elm which takes this finely crafted novel into the events of the past as experienced by the participants looking back from the present day. Impaired and confused (or is he?), Toby begins to try to unravel the mystery of the skull which leads him to question who he was, who he believes himself to be, as well as, who he has become. His familial relationships are equally as distorted. This book crackles with realistic characterizations. At times, I felt as if I was listening to my husband and his friends good-naturedly jab at each other including that eye roll inducing middle school mentality that that tends to resurface when they are together. While a mystery exists, this book is more of a deep dive into the human psyche and an exploration of the perception of events from different points of view. I was transfixed.
This review and other non-spoilery reviews can be found @The Book Prescription
“These are doctors. I don’t know what kind of social‑ justice‑warrior shite you’ve been reading, but their job is to make people better, if they can. Which sometimes they can’t. That doesn’t mean they’re evil villains rubbing their hands and looking for ways to fuck up people’s lives.”
🌟 Have you ever watched a TV series or a film and you knew from the start it is not just for you, but it was interesting enough to make you watch a bit more and then more and then you were invested enough to continue the whole thing only to regret the whole process at the end. Well, those were my feelings toward this book!
🌟 I am as disappointed now as I was excited now when I was approved for this ARC-which is quite a lot- I wanted to read something by Tana French for ages now and I wanted a standalone rather than her Dublin Murder squad series. I thought everything was going to be perfect until I started reading this…
🌟 I started this after finishing 3 books in 3 days and I was so excited, I started it while I was a bit tired and got bored so I blamed myself, took a break from reading and started it once again from the beginning the next day, it was a bit better but still I knew I won’t like it.
🌟 So enough ranting and let me explain why I didn’t enjoy this; The writing was sybaritic and voluptuous (who uses these words??). The writing was from 1st person POV and the main character used lavish words that I have never heard from anyone IRL. If it had been a 3rd person POV, then it would have been the author using this language and it would have made much more sense. People in real life don’t talk the way this was written! Also the words Xanax and Bollocks were used every couple of pages and I could not un-notice them then which became annoying!
🌟 Also it is supposed to be a thriller and I only started to get hooked after 30% of the book. See this quote:
“Baby, it’s not Agatha Christie. I’m not going to get stabbed in the li‑ brary with a letter opener for getting too close to the truth.”
Boy, I wish it was an Agatha Christie book, Agatha would have almost a whole book in the 30% that it took me to get involved in this. This was so descriptive and slow, that it felt like a 600-700 pages rather than 464 pages.
🌟 There was much time spent on characters development and backstories. Unfortunately many details can be omitted and it would have been the same. I wasn’t fond of any character but I just powered through this as I don’t like to DNF ARCs.
🌟 By the end of the book, many things happened and one thing took me by surprise. I sadly have lost interest by that time and just wanted to finish. I ended up giving it 2 stars out of 5!
🌟 Summary: This book had a good idea and it can be surprising but I think it had bad execution. It could have been faster, simpler and with more relatable characters. I saw many reviews that said this was not as good as her Dublin Murder squad which is a good news for those -including me- who still want to give Tana a chance.
🌟 Prescription: For those who are patient and can tolerate slow-paced books.