Witch of Wild Things by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

The Witch of Wild Things has a romance, but it’s less of a romance novel and more a novel about familial bonds and trauma. It reminded me a lot of Practical Magic, but has its own vibe due to the personalities and histories of the characters, the setting, and the Latinx history of the family. I liked the overall atmosphere of the book and its prickly protagonist, but I thought events near the ending offered an implausible and frustratingly easy way out for both the characters and the reader.

Sage, the main character and narrator, is one of three sisters, each of whom has a magical gift. Sage is able to identify any plant and, to a certain degree, can communicate with them. Her sister, Teal, can control the weather although more typically the weather reflects her emotions whether she wants it to or not. Their sister Sky was able to communicate with animals. Sky died in an accident eight years ago, and Teal has blamed Sage for not preventing the accident all this time. The sisters were taken in by their aunt, Nadia, after their mother’s disappearance, and Sage essentially raised her sisters while Nadia supported them financially.

The story begins when Sage has to move back in with Nadia and Teal after being fired from a teaching job. She’s fighting with Teal again within minutes of walking in the door and she’s haunted by Sky’s ghost, who keeps telling her to make peace with Teal. She’s also forced to work alongside Tennessee Reyes, a man who broke her heart in high school but doesn’t know it.

Drama ensues:

  • There’s the beginning of a love triangle, which turns into a potential love quadrangle and then just fizzles away as though nothing happened,
  • And there’s flashbacks to when Tennessee and Sage flirted anonymously over AOL Instant Messenger, but even though that episode ended with Sage having a broken heart, a heart that stayed broken all the way into adulthood, it feels kinda silly next to all of Sage’s other traumas, especially since its clear from the get-go that this involves a misunderstanding,
  • And there’s Sage’s issues with her new job,
  • And her issues with her last job,
  • And all the family drama which is multi-generational and involves many relatives,
  • And a fight with her best friend,
  • And a fight with Teal’s dirtbag boyfriend and subsequently Teal,
  • And the question of whether or not Sage will go back to making jewelry,
  • And the whole ghost thing.

These are a lot of plot threads and they spill out into side channels that distract more than they entertain or illuminate. Any one of these could have been a whole book and the inclusion of so much diluted the emotional impact of the story for me instead of enriching it.

The book worked best as an exploration of grief, although that’s also where it fell apart the worst (see spoiler below for more on that). I was so frustrated by some of Teal and Sage’s behavior before I realized that they have been frozen, in terms of emotional development, at the ages they were when Sky died.

some spoiler analysis ahead

When Sky died, Teal was an angry, traumatized teenager who was desperate to blame anyone but herself for her problems, and she blamed Sage, who was the closest thing she had to a mother. This is developmentally appropriate, though unpleasant, behavior for a teen. But eight years later, Teal is still stuck in this stage of immaturity, unable to progress through grief and still blaming Sage for everything, including things that Sage could not possibly have controlled..

Sage is twenty-nine at the start of the book, but the betrayal she experienced from Tennessee when she was a teenager herself is still fresh, as is her inability to spend more than five minutes in most people’s company without starting a fight. She’s essentially trapped at twenty-one (her age at Sky’s death), an age at which most of us are just barely emerging from our teenage issues. She also has massive amounts of unresolved grief and anger from childhood, so she’s a little bit still trapped there, angry all the time with no healthy way of expressing it.

Even Sky is trapped developmentally, unable to progress from haunting Sage towards an afterlife. The resulting dynamics are maddening to read but also make a lot of sense.

I don’t want to spoil the ending so I’m going to be very vague about it, but I’m using spoiler tags anyway:

vague spoilers ahead

The ending of the book is an unambiguously happy one, nothing bittersweet about it. I know that this book is being marketed at least in part as a romance novel, and no one is a more ardent defender of the HEA than I.

However, by undercutting one of the primary plot points, the story also undermines the growth of the characters, offering sudden resolutions to conflicts that feel more like wish fulfillment than anything truly earned.

I’ve talked a lot about grief in this review and not at all about romance. Although this is marketed as a paranormal romance, the romance between Sage and Tennessee isn’t the point of the story. It’s much more about her character growth and her ability to resolve her issues with her family. We never get anything from Tennessee’s point of view and he doesn’t come across as very layered. He likes Sage and refuses to be chased away by her hostile behavior, though not in a stalkery way, and he’s smart, kind, romantic, sensitive, and great in bed. He is the plant guy version of the sexy lamp. The Sexy Lamp Test, created by Kelly Sue DeConnick, asks whether the main female character, or in this case her male counterpoint, could be replaced by a sexy lamp without changing the plot. In this case, you could easily swap Tennessee out with a sexy lamp as long as said lamp had a truck and could drive.

The book works best in terms of general atmosphere. The time that Sage spends wandering the woods and the yards of old houses feels tactile and lived in and solid. Her family’s Mexican heritage, as well as her best friend’s Cuban heritage are valued and celebrated by their families. Sage’s house is described with the kinds of details that only old houses full of family memories accrue. I love me some good plant magic and this book has misty woods and smelly basil and all those good things, although I’m a little miffed that plant magic works on mushrooms despite the fact (which is noted in the book) that mushrooms ARE NOT PLANTS.

This book desperately needed to be streamlined, but within all the plot threads is a sharp, painful portrait of a grieving family as well as a lovely story of magic and nature. The romance is fine, especially if you like grumpy/sunshine dynamics. But Sage’s struggle to mature, to become a person who is not solely defined by her mistakes and by responsibilities she never should have had, is the real center of the story. In that light, I enjoyed the book very much.

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