Warning: I discuss cutting and the inclusion of it in The Suffering Tree in this review.
When I finished The Suffering Tree and read reviews of it I asked myself if I read the same book as these other reviewers because I absolutely do not have feelings of this being a five, four, or even three star book. The initial look at the book, aka the summary, had me hooked. It seemed right up my alley: it has a curse, a mystery, and a character coming back from the dead coupled with the outsider / outcast aspect. That summary was what led me to request an ARC on NetGalley. Sadly the summary led me astray.
The things I liked about this book are slim compared to the problems I had with it. It’s exceedingly frustrating as a reader to have most of the excitement about the book explained in the summary, because I found the actual book quite slow and boring at times. Even though the writing had beautiful and sometimes poetic moments, I couldn’t shake the disconnect from the characters despite following Tori throughout the entire novel.
Normally this is where I’d go into talking about the characters to keep with the flow of my writing, but I wanted to talk about the things I had issues with in order of importance. Because all of my issues with the characters and the points of view pale in comparison to this:
Using cutting as a way to have magical things happen is a HUGE problem.
There was no indication going into The Suffering Tree that Tori self-harmed. Like this review here, I agree that self-harm is not something that should be completely erased from young adult books, but it does need to be done in a way that doesn’t glorify it the way that I felt The Suffering Tree did. The inclusion of self-harm was completely unexpected. I’ve read a few other books with self-harm in them, and generally there’s something in the plot summary that indicates to the reader that it will be discussed in the book.
I hated that other characters, namely her mother and brother, seemed to ignore that Tori was hurting. Tori had been caught before and was required to talk to someone (she no longer is talking to someone ) and Tori’s mother counts the knives in the drawers, but there’s just something so dismissive about how it was handled in the book. They just scurry out of her way in their attempts to not talk about it. With the death of Tori’s father, subsequent eviction, and move to a new home and town, you’d think that Tori’s mother would be aware of the stressors in Tori’s life that would lead to more cutting. There’s absolutely no discussion about how Tori is doing and there’s no therapy, even though the discussion of therapy is halfheartedly made later on. Nothing comes of it, however. It made me feel like the author just used it as a way to further the story rather than call attention to the real harm it can be.
Which brings me back to my main point: using cutting as a way to have magical things happen is a gigantic problem. It’s huge. And honestly, I have a hard time thinking about how this made it past editors and first readers, particularly when it’s in the young adult market. There’s a difference between blood being specifically used for spells which sometimes happens in books with witches / magic and when a character harms herself with the intent to harm and something magical just happens as a result. I cannot believe that this decision was made and reinforced as it went through first readers.
This is threaded throughout the entirety of the novel but is never truly addressed. Tori acts weird and blows people off, yet no one calls her on it. No one asks–truly asks–if she’s okay. There are other ways of showing that a protagonist has anxiety and depression. Frankly I feel like it trivializes these things by making it the catalyst to magical things.
Which leads me into my second problem: the characters are not developed at all. Secondary characters are just names on the pages. The novel centers completely around Tori and Nathaniel. She has friends but doesn’t engage with them. Nor do they really try to engage with her. Along with her mother and brother, Tori’s two friends exist as plot devices to occasionally further the story. It’s sad when I read a story and none of the characters are memorable. I hardly even know what Tori and Nathaniel look like and the other characters may as well be the creepy mannequins at department stores. There’s basically a one sentence description about them. I felt that a lot of it was just ticking boxes.
When the romance develops the lack of character development really killed it for me. Even when a novel goes the instant-love route, there’s things that I can find cute about the romance even if it’s unrealistic and / or developed too quickly. With The Suffering Tree I felt nothing. Honestly I think the romance wasn’t necessary; I was far more invested in the mystery and anytime something remotely romantic happened it didn’t seem to fit in with the novel. I think it would have worked better had Tori and Nathaniel worked together as friends who both had an interest in solving the mystery.
The points of view were also very odd in this book. There were three, which is at least one too many. The choice to write in two perspectives–first and third–also kept removing me from the story. It was weird and jarring to switch from one to another. I don’t mind multiple perspectives, but it seems unnecessary to switch from third to first and then back. I didn’t feel that the book benefited from this choice at all, so I’m rather confused about why it was included in the first place.
A lot of this review focuses on the negative things, but there was enough positives that I didn’t hate the book. I use the two star rating for “okay” and that’s really how I felt about it. I enjoyed reading the mystery and of both Nathaniel and Tori’s involvement in it, although I feel that the lack of a villain made it weaker. I wanted to feel more uneasy about the mystery and the events surrounding it, but there wasn’t a sense of urgency to them. They felt very surface level which is frustrating when I want to read a mystery. I kept reading because I wanted to see how things would turn out in the end. I was curious but ultimately I feel that the author led too much into what was going to be revealed because it was easy to guess where it was going to go.
I have no doubt that The Suffering Tree will be popular when it’s published despite the issues I had with it. The premise was amazing and it made me have high hopes for the novel. I have a hard time reviewing when I’m one of the first reviewers of an upcoming release that doesn’t have many reviews, but I also know the importance of reading reviews before purchasing a book. I’ve tried to address all of the positives and negatives so people wondering about this book will have another perspective to look at.
I sincerely hope that the publisher addresses the issue that happens when cutting is glorified (particularly when this book is in the young adult market) before publication.
I received a copy of The Suffering Tree from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Suffering Tree will be published on June 13th.