Book Review: The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

I received this book for free (from the publisher) as a review copy for possible use in my teaching. I teach AP Literature and am always on the lookout for modern books of literary merit that balance the ability to analyze elements such as symbolism with reader interest.

The plot intrigued me, and the novel did not disappoint. In fact, I read the book in about two days, which is a recent record with my summer days occupied by a toddler. It’s a young adult, rather than an “adult” novel, so it was a bit of a quicker read than something targeted at an older audience. For an AP Lit class, it would be a good way to hook students while allowing them opportunities for analysis.

The book seems at first like a modern Romeo and Juliet: the Palomas and the Corbeaus are rival performing families. The Palomas are performing mermaids, and the Corbeaus strap wings to their backs and perform feats in the trees and tightropes.

The families are performing in a small town with a history of abuse by a factory that ignores safety concerns, resulting in an accident that literally rains down on the town. Throughout all this, the two protagonists, “Cluck” and Lace, are thrown together. They are the “Romeo” and “Juliet” characters, taught to scorn members of the opposite family—when neither family has all of the facts. Lace is a Latina girl, and Cluck is a Romani boy, and both families rely on stereotypes and misconceptions perpetuated by superstition to fuel the hate.

The book walks the line between reality and magical realism: for instance, “Cluck” and his family have actual feathers growing from the backs of their necks, while Lace and her family have scales growing on certain parts of their bodies. The raining of feathers that happens throughout the novel can sometimes be explained by the events in the story and sometimes defies logical explanation.

Reading the author’s note at the back of the book (after having finished the novel), it seems these elements could be read as metaphors for the marginalized. In the book, Lace at one point refers to Cluck as a gypsy, and the author notes how this term has been adopted into pop culture even as it carries a heavily derogatory meaning. When we learn more about each family’s history, we see that not all members of the family are so willing to buy into the hate, but it is easier to give in than fight back.

My main complaint about the novel is that the last twenty or so pages seem to shift into more of a “telling” rather than “showing,” where a lot is explained by getting us directly into the thoughts of characters. The lack of subtlety was a bit disappointing given the rest of the story. Still, it’s a novel I’d recommend, and I’d look into it for use in the AP classroom as well.

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