Last year Cat Winters wrote a novel called In the Shadow of Blackbirds that won or was nominated for a host of awards and recognitions. While I didn’t read that one, I would like to believe that The Cure for Dreaming will stand next to her last book in the awards category. I tweeted a few days ago that The Cure for Dreaming was the most positive I’d felt about a book all year. At the time I hadn’t yet finished reading it. Now I have. And I still feel that way.
My feelings are from the ideas, primarily, with which Winters imbues her story of Olivia Mead, burgeoning suffragette and daughter of a tyrannical Portland dentist, but also from the way Winters gets those ideas across–the imagery, the characters’ struggles. The narrative, clean and well-plotted, is nevertheless a pretty straightforward story, not requiring the reader to jump through any hoops or suspend–to any large degree–their sense of disbelief. That might sound odd, considering the story revolves around a cultural infatuation with hypnosis at the turn of the 20th century, a time which we moderns like to think of as being superstitious, barely civilized in many ways (after all, it was pre universal suffrage).
But this is where Winters’ deftness of prose becomes apparent, as she has so well placed the story–honestly, she’s really done her research here–and displays an understanding of the era about which she writes, that the reader is simply swept into the story, an avatar of that world. Plot holes, every time I thought I’d encountered one, were carefully placed to advance the story, like knitters’ needles put down by one person, only to be picked up by another, seamlessly revealing important details of one character or creating motives for another. Winters’ writing is clear and matter-of-fact, at times incredibly vivid, whether she’s writing about dentistry, or hypnosis, or cycling, so that there is no room for questioning the truth of the narrative.
But she does ask the reader to question. She’s the kind of YA writer that, were I still a YA librarian, I would heartily recommend to any of my patrons. Without giving too much away, I would like to say that, though the subject of the book is women’s suffrage and the coming of age of a young woman, the theme underlying it all is empathy. And that is a topic in which a lot of people could use a lesson. Through the experiences of Olivia, the reader is led to think about the actions of various characters–characters who, sadly, could so easily step off the pages and into our world, today, and fit right in–and what those actions really entail for the people around them.
I’ll be honest: though I enjoyed it, I didn’t really get into the story until Olivia’s dream, a visceral description of her father’s dental work. Dentistry itself was a bit of a “new idea” in that era, and its juxtaposition with suffrage and hypnosis created a storm of ideas that I just couldn’t get out of my head. Any of those subplots alone could have stood strongly enough for the novel, but together they build a novel that is difficult to forget.
But before I wax too poetic and start revealing things I shouldn’t, I’ll finish with one final thought: the novel is a love story as well, but with a very refreshing ending.