I probably wouldn’t have picked up Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went to the Woods (Random House 2019) had I seen the comparison to Donna Tartt. I don’t know if Dolan-Leach studied the literary brat pack from Bennington, but her work is certainly reminiscent of that particular group of writers and their self-absorbed and unlikeable characters who show no growth or development.
Mack, the narrator, was an anthropology PhD student until she was quite publicly removed from the program following her involvement in a reality TV series called The Millennial Experiment. (It was the Real World meets Preppers, y’all. And stuff got real.) She became public enemy number one when she outed another housemate as trans with the intent to hurt that person, and cancel culture did what cancel culture does. Mack moved back in with her parents and picked up what jobs she could. (The reveal of her fall from grace is unnecessarily and painstaking delayed.)
She’s looking for an escape when she meets Louisa, Chloe, Beau and Jack, and living “off the grid” on the “Homestead” is an easy ask of her. It doesn’t hurt that all four of her new friends are breathtakingly gorgeous, and Mack wants to have sex with all four of them at some point in the novel. She’s self-aware and understands that lust drives her ready acceptance to be part of this community they’re building.
None of the characters are likeable. Except for the dog, who, btw, dies. (Spoiler alert. Sorry.) Mack in particular is frustratingly inconsistent. She teeters between educated scholar who observes more than participates and half feral child of Neverland who ignores the very real and very serious signs that the Homestead isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She investigates and questions certain half-truths she’s told but abandons the inquiry and never returns to it. Maybe it’s intentional character development – Dolan-Leach’s way of showing someone so willing to overlook glaring issues just to “belong” – but it’s so very annoying.
Beau is every cult leader in history. He’s attractive, mysterious, sexual, passionate about something, a leader. He’s the kind of man people would do stupid things for. He and Louisa are the masterminds behind the Homestead, and they’re not exactly truthful about the intent as their off the grid lifestyle is teetering over into the dangerous world of activism and domestic terrorism. Chloe is a flower-child – a lover of love – who is battling her own internal demons and hoping the quiet of the woods will bring her peace.
The Homestead is not the first community of its kind on the property, and Mack finds and hides a journal by one of the original community members. When she puts on her scholar hat and isn’t running naked through the woods with her wolf-dog, the book’s heart beats a little stronger. The history of the first community and its crimes juxtaposed to the Homestead and their crimes is where this novel excels, but it just can’t get out of its own way.
It’s not a “bad” book, it’s just not for me.