Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock
College student Polly believes that she has led a completely ordinary, uneventful life. But while packing for her return to school after a vacation, she begins to contemplate a photograph that has hung on her bedroom wall for years. As she looks at the photograph, she slowly begins to remember a different version of her past — a past in which her closest friend was a talented cellist named Thomas Lynn. In this alternate timeline, Polly met Tom when she was a little girl, and they quickly struck up a friendship, writing letters to each other full of strange and magical events. But when their made-up stories started to happen in real life, Polly knew that something sinister was at stake. Now she must sift through her rediscovered memories in order to save Tom from seemingly certain doom.
This is a book that I really liked overall, but I have a couple of major nitpicks. First, I love Diana Wynne Jones’ style; I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, but I really need to seek out the rest of her work! I also really like the concept of the book: basically, Polly has two sets of memories and has to figure out what that means. It was a really interesting idea to explore, and I think it was executed very well. My biggest quibble is the ending, which I don’t think works at all. Polly realizes why she has the dual memories, figures out how to save herself and Tom, and then it just kind of happens with no real explanation. What happens to the baddies? What will Polly and Tom do going forward? There are a lot of unanswered questions, and that bugs me. My other problem with the book was the romance; I just found it really icky that the hero was so much older than Polly and that he basically had his eye on her since she was a child. I can see where DWJ was trying to go with it, but it did not work for me. Still, this is a book I would definitely recommend overall, especially to fans of retold fairy tales.
7 thoughts on “Review: Fire and Hemlock”
I completely agree with you on all points. This book is probably top of my list for books I WANT to love…but don’t. I love most of it, and I love Diana Wynne Jones’ writing, but the ending just doesn’t work for me at all. The lack of explanation bothers me a lot, and I just cannot get into the romance.
I’ve read this twice (and very probably will someday read it again…) so on the second time through I came into it knowing that Tom was a lot younger than I’d been picturing him the first time. She presents him as an old man, and only near the end do we realize he’s maybe ten years older than Polly. So I spent half of my second read chanting “he’s young, he’s young,” and…it still didn’t work. And the ending didn’t feel any clearer.
Sigh. It’s such a wonderful book in so many ways, and yet!
If you’re looking for more DWJ, I would highly recommend A Tale of Time City, and any of the Crestomanci books. Actually, you could read just about anything. They’re not always perfect, but they’re always worthwhile anyway.
I felt okay about the ending after multiple rereads, although I definitely agree that it’s confusing. As I always say, Diana Wynne Jones is better on a reread! And as well I don’t get the feeling that Tom was, you know, grooming Polly in an icky way, if that makes sense. I mean they could have carried on being friends regardless.
Well, I definitely wouldn’t mind rereading this at some point! Now that I have a clearer picture of where everything is headed, maybe the ending will make more sense to me. As for Tom and Polly, I see your point about him not “grooming” her…I don’t think he was doing that, but he did know that their relationship was heading in that direction. And he deliberately sought her out and drew her into this whole dangerous world…I dunno. I’m almost on board, but I can’t help having some nagging feelings about it!
Mmm, I know that feeling of really wanting to love something but it hasn’t quite worked. I’ll probably give this one a miss. I haven’t read any DWJ yet but have Howl’s Moving Castle on my list which I’m really looking forward to.
Ooh, you’re in for a treat with Howl’s Moving Castle! I have heard it’s quite different from the movie, though, so be warned. Based on my experience, you really can’t go wrong with DWJ!