Book Review: Lost in the Never Woods
Okay, so, this book. This book, y'all. Normally I like to write a review almost immediately after reading the material, but I couldn't do that with this novel. The ending left me feeling all kinds of ways, and I needed time to process. Have you ever finished a really good book, and just had this heavy, sad, almost nostalgic feeling settle in your chest, right under your sternum? If you have, then you know exactly how I felt when I put this book down.
Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas, is, on the surface, a modernized retelling/sequel to Peter Pan. It is a sequel in a sense that the events of the original Peter Pan story happened something like five years prior. The protagonist of this story is an eighteen-year-old Wendy Darling. Five years ago, she and her younger brothers, John and Michael, disappeared from the woods one day without a trace. Six months later, Wendy was found by herself in those same woods, traumatized and alone, clutching an acorn. She had no memory of the six months that had passed, and as of the beginning of this story, her eighteenth birthday, she still has no memory of the events. Her little brothers are still missing.
It is summer, and Wendy will be going to college in the fall with her best friend, Jordan. She is ready to grow up and move on with her life. However, the old trauma from her past is brought back to the forefront when children in town begin to go missing the way she and her brothers had. It is brought to a head when, while driving home from her shift volunteering at the hospital, she nearly runs over a boy who is collapsed in the middle of the road. A boy who looks just like 'Peter Pan,' a made up character from stories her mother used to tell her, and which she in turn told her brothers so long ago. And this boy not only seems to recognize her, but he also knows her name.
The Mental Health Of It All:
Through most of the novel, Wendy struggles with something akin to PTSD, although the memories usually come to her in the form of dreams rather than flashbacks. Her parents suffer from the events of six years ago as well, due to not having closure on John and Michael's whereabouts. Wendy's mom is a sad shadow of the woman Wendy remembers prior to her and her brothers' disappearance. Her father is no longer affectionate with her, and drinking alcohol seems to have become his main coping mechanism. Although it remains unspoken in the narrative, signs point to Mr. Darling having become a full-blown alcoholic.
I thought the portrayals of the fragile mental health of a family torn apart by loss seemed very authentic, and they were sensitively handled. For example, while Wendy acknowledges the amount her father drinks, and doesn't like it, she isn't judgmental of him for it, as she understands all too well the feelings that led him to drink in the first place. In addition to Wendy and her mother's lack of condemnation of Mr. Darling's coping mechanism of choice, the author also chose to not depict him as some kind of selfish monster, as many alcoholics seem to be portrayed in the media. Rather, he is a broken man, and although he can be gruff, he is ultimately a sympathetic character. (That being said, it is clear the author is not trying to glorify the over-consumption of alcohol either, as its use, we find out, plays a significant role in a very tragic event, uncovered late in the book).
The Romance (which could have been problematic, but ultimately is not):
When Wendy nearly runs over Peter, he appears to be thirteen or fourteen at most. A bit older than the Peter Pan her mother used to tell tales about, but not by too much. However, it becomes clear that he is rapidly growing into a more physically mature version of himself, which, he explains, is a problem, because he's Peter Pan. He isn't supposed to grow up. As he changes and appears older, he tells Wendy that he can feel his magic growing weaker. Once he is fully 'grown up,' he will lose his magic, and he's terrified because he doesn't know what that will do to him.
I bring up the rapid aging thing, because at first glance, an eighteen-year-old Wendy falling in love with an ambiguously aged (but definitely several years younger than her physically) boy is extremely problematic. However, it is clear that the feelings she gradually develops for him aren't present when he appears to be so much younger than her. She only seems to be becoming attracted to him once he presents as closer to her in age. In this world of 'cancel culture,' I just hope people don't latch on to the whole 'Peter Pan is a kid' thing and give the author a hard time, because Aiden Thomas's Peter Pan ISN'T a kid, which is kind of the whole point. His rapid aging is an important part of the plot, especially once the reader learns the reason it is happening (which I can't go into because spoilers but OH DEAR GOD MY HEART).
While the romance that happens in Lost in the Never Woods is integral to the plot, this novel is SO MUCH MORE than a love story. It is full of magic and wonder, it tackles difficult subjects like loss and grief, and ultimately, it is a story about growing up. That it is a modernized retelling of a beloved children's tale is just the icing on the cake.
I give Lost in the Never Woods ALL OF THE STARS and highly recommend it for fans of YA, retellings, Peter Pan, romance, magic, and well....anybody breathing, really.
A big thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for free access to the e-arc of this book, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.