Genres: Literary Fiction
This is one of the most talked about feminist dystopias of the year, and the blurb had that “toxic masculinity” was literally a toxic that made people ill, and thus this community set itself away from the rest of the world in order to survive. The story is, however, not a dystopia but rather a cult story. I picked it up because I love feminist SF, but this was not SF at all, and I think a lot of other people might be confused by that, too. So, now that this is out of the way, to the review!
The Water Cure is the story of a family that lives in an island where toxic things like emotion and desire, dangerous things to a woman in the outside world, are to be purged out of the body. Only love for each other must remain, measured and cautious. To do that, the three sisters, their mother and father go through therapy sessions – including near-drowning, screaming and allotted crying time. As the only man in the island and therefore immune to the toxics of the outside world, the father goes to the mainland for supplies. One day when he disappears without leaving a trace, their world is shaken. And when men arrive in the island begging for sanctuary, the very emotions they have worked so hard to suppress come to surface. And that means they are all in danger.
I quite enjoy books where the reality is something you question throughout the story – is this real? Did this really happen? Are emotions actually toxic or is this made up? I do wish, however, that the world-building had been done a little more thoroughly to put us in the right state of mind to read this book. As it was, it was just confusing, with snippets of what the life in the island had been like, of the refugee women seeking sanctuary and healing. I would have loved to see more of their lives before and after, and why they left.
I found also that the story itself was predictable – in an island of women trying to escape men, obviously there would be men arriving and causing the girls to question the things they’ve been taught and probably going to fall in love. I won’t go into more so as not to spoil anything (see below for that), but this predictability put a damp on my interest in the story. I also got the impression that the story dragged on a lot in the middle (about 70% of it). The ending, however, was fantastic. That alone deserved a full star on my rating.
The prose is beautiful at times, but also simple, so if you find literary fiction bothersome and too verbose, this one isn’t like that. There is lots of water imagery in it, and a lovely cadence to the sentences. This is the very best thing about this book! If you like books about cults, family and sisterhood, you will enjoy this. If you’re looking for feminist dystopia/utopia and matriarchal societies, pick up Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, The Power by Naomi Alderman, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake and others (Goodreads has a list of Matriarchal Societies in Fiction, if you want to check out more).
I think this will be for a niche kind of reader – it was not for me.
I also lost interest rather quickly once the story changed to mostly the three sisters fighting because one of them is developing feelings for one of the men. While I understand how that is actually relevant in the environment those girls were brought up in, it still felt so… ugh. I was cringing the whole time- how quickly she used words like “love” to describe her feelings for this man she just met. How she was okay with the dismissive way he treated her. But I do see why she behaved that way – she craved love, and he showed her a simile of it, so she took it unquestioningly.
I did not like Lia as a narrator for such a long part of the story, and wish Grace had narrated it instead. Lia felt like a tool for the plot to move forward, because without her, the story would have played it entirely differently (more satisfyingly, I think, without the romance). Sky was completely without agency or personality throughout most of the story, too. So much of the story was the girls being bored and a bit suspicious and Lia being naïve.
Also I wasn’t fond of the fact that all the men in this book were manipulative and/or abusive. Since their father was that way, I understand how he could have friends and family that were exactly like him, too, but I wish one of the men had been kind. This way, the premise that “men suck, let’s stay in an island by ourselves” felt too generalized. Since the cast of characters is so small, though, I think it’s okay. You can’t have a vast variety of personalities and the whole spectrum of goodness/evilness with three men and a boy. Just like with the girls and the mother. As I said before, this is a very niche story with a niche set of characters, for – you guessed it – a niche kind of reader.