"Wonderland" | Reviewed by Jennifer Johnson
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
In "Wonderland," Zoje Stage’s latest novel, recently retired ballerina Orla Bennett and her family head for the Adirondacks, leaving their busy New York life behind.
Orla is now free to assume the role of primarycare giver to their children Tycho and Eleanor. Stay-at-home dad Shaw is thrilled to finally be able to feed his artistic vision of becoming a successful painter, thanks to the family’s newly acquired secluded farmhouse.
Their home provides them with all the things their cramped New York apartment couldn’t: individual bedrooms for the couple and each of their children, a sprawling wooded landscape, studio space for Shaw and endless quiet.
While Shaw seems to immediately thrive in the family’s serene surroundings, Orla is weary and unsettled. Something feels off to her, something beyond the unfamiliarity of their new home and her resumed role as homemaker.
Struggling with anxiety and trying to remain strong for her children becomes more and more difficult as the family bears witness to inexplicable events. Sudden snow storms dump feet of snow out of nowhere, northern lights appear overhead as clear as if the family lived at the north pole, snow drifts and sudden wind storms seem to only affect their property, and the centuries old pine tree towering over their land quivers with an unnatural energy.
Young Eleanor feels unsettled like her mother, convinced that there is something in the woods trying to communicate with her while Shaw closes himself off in his studio, obsessing over his art. Dismayed by her daughter’s reports of hearing voices, and her husband’s increasingly manic behavior, Orla urges the family to leave, convinced that an unnatural entity is trying to harm them.
Initially Shaw is resistant but then he too reveals he no longer feels confident of their safety and agrees to his wife’s request. When it seems that the Bennett family may be able to make yet another fresh start, the tether connecting them to the secluded surroundings is revealed and Orla’s ability to protect her family disintegrates. As they grasp at survival and try to understand the unseen force, their dream of thriving in an artistic wonderland dissolves into a nightmare.
"Wonderland’s" family in peril is reminiscent of characters in stories like “The Shining,” but Stage’s contemporary take is punctuated with a fresh sense of fear and paranoia. The former filmmaker proves that having a cinematic vision translates a story to the page that is as vibrant and eerie as the northern lights and lingers in your periphery long after you’ve finished reading.