“The Changeling” feels like two books in one. You have the contemporary fiction of a young black family navigating their new life changes when welcoming a baby in New York City, which includes dealing with the racism they face as very bookish people—Apollo is a book man, hunting down rare books, and Emma is a librarian. But it’s also a story that closely aligns with the traditional folklore around changelings (I won’t go into details just in case you aren’t familiar and want to be completely surprised by this novel). Marrying those two stories is tricky, at the best of times, but Lavelle does a fabulous job, for the most part, of weaving a chilling, slow burn contemporary thriller with a fantasy horror story. The effect is a literary fiction that I can totally see college or advanced High School students dissecting in their English classes. But the connections between these two worlds wasn’t always there, so the author had to take great leaps on occasion, plus there is just one thing I cannot forgive Emma for…
The writing style of this story is an interesting blend of prose and choppiness that really adds to the creepy and vaguely unsettling nature of the book—even if that means the dialogue got a bit too disjointed and choppy at times. And while the story is interesting, especially seeing how closely Apollo and Emma’s courtship mirrors Apollo’s parents, this story gets incredibly dark and graphic at times. I point it out mainly because I personally didn’t see it mentioned in reviews that there is some extreme violence against babies in this book, kidnapping of kids, as well as some pretty graphic violence against adults. It’s all part of the story and plot, so it’s not like it’s just in there for fun, but I even found it upsetting to read at times, and I’m not a parent! So, if you are a parent or find even implied violence against kids upsetting, just be careful when reading this book.
Honestly, it was that violence (as well as a leap in logic I’ll get to in a second) that kept me from really loving this book the way that everyone who recommended it to me said I would/should. It says right in the synopsis that Emma commits an unspeakable act of violence, but I’d go so far as to say she commits two; and while one can potentially be forgiven or excused as the mystery gets solved, the other absolutely cannot. I would have maybe been ok—well, not ok but at least understanding if Apollo had addressed this act (which I’m not saying because it’s graphic, and also spoilers) but it never happened. Instead, he's treated as deserving of what happened to him, which didn't make sense to me, and never got explained, either. Or I don’t think so? Honestly, there were parts of this book where I legitimately felt like I was missing something. That maybe my book was missing whole chapters, but nope. Like where Apollo goes to get help and what he finds there is not connected to Emma at all outside of a vague connection to the person who showed Apollo the way. It seemed like this location and the people there would be more linked but just… weren’t outside of an opportunity for a new character to tell Apollo a story. Which leaves Emma, who suddenly begins to lean into the magical realism aspects of this book for… a reason I could not find. It just happens because the plot demands it to be so. Which might have been alright if it weren’t such a vital part to the story.
Who knows, maybe magical realism and literary fantasy fiction are things that aren’t sticking with me well at this point, but I, personally, would have liked more links between Emma and Apollo and the villain (whose name is the most laughable villain name ever) before the end. I appreciate that books sometimes lean into the idea that they will be discussed and dissected in classrooms or book clubs, but when you read them outside of those settings, then you just feel confused, or like you’re trying to go door to door to find someone who can help you fill in the blanks. The writing itself is fantastic, and when the book finally got to the more traditional changeling aspects, it was amazing! Lavelle really nailed the creepy and horror aspects there. But when it comes to Emma and Apollo personally, the intense and unsettling moments of violence, and just the massive leaps that had to be made on occasion to connect these two very different stories… I didn’t end up liking the book as much as I wanted to, which is why I’m giving it 3 stars, but if you can/do read this, I highly recommend reading with a group so you can discuss everything as you read!
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