“Gather the Daughters” is one of the most gorgeous debut novels of the summer. While it bears some inevitable comparisons to certain contemporary favorites — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Giver,” “Never Let Me Go,” even “Spring Awakening,” — first time author Jennie Melamed has released a whole new world that spins entirely on its own axis.
It begins with a girl being sent home from school for bursting into tears upon getting her period for the first time. This seems normal enough; the rest of the girls in the class have reactions varying from pity to lofty derision. Menstruation has always been imbued with significance, but on the island of “Gather the Daughters,” it betokens an immediate, somber departure from childhood. The summer after a girl’s first period is called her “summer of fruition,” where she joins other girls who have recently reached puberty, all of whom are courted by the eligible men for the summer. At the end of this ritual, all of them are supposed to be coupled up; many are pregnant before 18.
This community strictly adheres to the principles of the men who colonized this island, escaping from a nation — the “wastelands” — supposedly on the brink of collapse; they constructed a society based on controlled breeding, rationing of knowledge and ancestral worship. This seems a regular enough formulation of a dystopian society, but part of the reason the world of “Gather the Daughters” stands out is the experience of summer. Beginning at the first rainfall of every summer, the children of the island are allowed to run wild, literally. Giddy with excitement and heady with freedom and, for the girls, reeling from the relief that comes from escaping their fathers, they do as they please until the first frost. Those that become ill would rather tough it out for months than return home. The fiercely guarded preciousness of summer is what seems to allow the island to function.
Until little Caitlin Jacob sees something she wasn’t meant to, and everything begins to unravel, little by little, and then all at once.
The story is told through the perspective of a few young girls: Vanessa, who has rare access to books through her father’s occupation; Janey, a natural-born charismatic leader; Amanda, whose desperation over the changes in her body leads to a terrible fate; and Caitlin, who sets things in motion. The daughters of the community, led by Janey — who is older than most of the girls due to the steps she has taken to stave off puberty — begin to question everything they thought they knew. The closer they get to the truth, they more they begin to push against their treatment. You can feel the fire in Janey’s voice, only more searing as her desperation grows — making it all the more painful when it is quieted. The girls are unromantic heroines. Some back away from challenges; some choose comfort over sacrifice; some, who hold knowledge that could change things, keep silent or can offer it only in whispers. They fail, through no fault of their own; some die. This is what makes their hope as wild as their summers, and the heartbreak that the ones who survive feel, so viscerally raw.
The wastelands begin somewhere in the water — a kind of aquatic No-Man’s Land — and the boundary between adolescence and adulthood for these girls is even murkier. In exquisite prose, Melamed shows us the dark colors of these serrated boundaries, and how people bleed when they push against them. The voices and stories of these girls will be seared permanently into your heart.