Book Review :: Where the Crawdads Sing

Review of Where the Crawdads Sing

This review of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is for the small percentage of readers who didn’t like it – to let you know you’re not alone.

The longer I have my book blog, the more reticent I am to write negative reviews. For one, I have not done the very hard work of finishing a novel, much less have had one published. Second, in my deep appreciation of the written word, I’ll extend grace to most anything that encourages reading. Often it is books with the popularity of Where the Crawdads Sing that encourages someone to return to reading – and that’s a good thing.

That said, this is one of those times when I feel the world of opinions needs some balance. I did not like Where the Crawdads Sing.

I have written before about the disservice some editors do for their authors by not fixing blatant errors and problems, and Where the Crawdads Sing falls into that category as well. Here are just a few examples that irked me:

  • When Kya packs a picnic for Tate early in their relationship, among other things, she packs  French bread & cheese, saying it is her favorite picnic snack. Really? A girl who has lived off of grits and mussels – just when and where did she experience French bread? I can promise you Jumpin’ wasn’t selling French bread in the tackle shop. A loaf of Sunbeam – for sure – but no French bread.
  • When Kya gives Chase the necklace with the unique shell, she says: “There are many of that genius here, but this particular species usually inhabits regions south of this latitude because these waters are too cool for them.” This is simply not how Kya talks. And before you offer, “Well, she’s been reading text books…” remember that Owens is depicting her as someone who really knows her stuff, and we all know that the better you know a subject, the better your ability to talk about it in your own language.
  • When Jodie shows up, Kya tells the story of how he got the scar on his cheek. A good editor would have placed that event earlier in the narrative when Kya talks about her abusive father and then let the scar itself identify the stranger.

It is examples like this last one that are most pervasive in the novel, and are the most egregious. Owens lacks the art of subtle revelation in her narrative. She repeats things over and over as if she needs to remind the reader about the clues she’s leaving.

Similarly, Owens’ nature prose is too heavy handed. I love a beautiful description with a metaphor as much as the next reader, but I also get the parallels between wildlife and human nature – you don’t have to beat me over the head with them. Again, subtly can go a long way. By the way, this is the author’s fault, not that of the editor.

And, I don’t know if that’s she been gone from South Georgia for too long, but I thought her Southern dialect was horrible. As one fellow (Southern) reader said, “It’s insulting.” Well said.

***SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Where the Crawdads Sing and plan to, you may not want to read any further. ****

The death of Tate’s father had no purpose. Why introduce a character just to kill him off in the last two chapters? If his relationship with Tate was necessary, make it a part of the story when Tate and Kya were first together. It seems this was included solely for the moment when the sheriff comes for him – to make the reader wonder if Tate is being arrested for the murder. When that doesn’t happen but you have what is supposed to be a poignant graveside scene, it falls flat. About the only thing that it does do is cheapen the death of Jumpin’, which really should be tender.

While I didn’t hate the fact that it turns out Kya did murder Chase, I do think the way it was revealed was low-rate and demonstrated the author’s inability to (again) artfully craft a narrative where this bears the weight that it should. As it is, Tate and Kya live happily ever after – her knowing she killed Chase – and Tate finds out after she dies? What’s the point? This feels like an elementary solution.

This review is long enough without me getting into all that is wrong with “Amanda Hamilton” but suffice it to say, I wanted to scream every time one of her poems was dropped into the story and finding out that Kya was the poet didn’t make it any better. (A better “ah-ha” for Amanda Hamilton would have been that she was Kya’s mother – and Kya to have discovered she had this link and shared language with a woman she longed to know.)

With all of this said, here is my one concession: I hold books that have gotten the type of praise that Where the Crawdads Sing to a higher standard than other books. If I had read this without seeing it on every summer reading list I would have likely given it a middle-of-the-road three star rating and moved on. But when I see people falling all over themselves over what is at best fair-to-middling writing, I have to speak up. Where the Crawdads Sing isn’t worthy of the hype.

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41 Replies to “Book Review :: Where the Crawdads Sing

  1. Oh how refreshing! I honestly do not understand all the praise this book is receiving. “I can’t even!” as my young nieces would say 🙂

  2. I almost wondered if Chase’s betrayal had caused Kya’s personality to splinter and it was the morose Amanda Hamilton, rather than the gentle “Marsh Girl” that killed Him. Surprise ending? Anyone who didn’t catch on after the firefly/praying mantis passages was just not paying attention. It was a proper beach read but not the next Mockingbird as one breathless reviewer gushed.

  3. As I browsed through reviews of this novel, I wondered if I would ever find anyone who found it as flawed as I did – thank you for articulating many of the elements that I found jarring and too much in the style of Nicholas Sparks. A better title would have been “Cinderella of the Swamp” with all the magical transformation of that fairy tale as well the clichéd romances, and the heavy-handed biology lessons. Now I have to spend 2 hours with my book group who I am sure will gush enthusiastically. As others have commented, this is a good beach read but certainly does not deserve the glowing reviews and comparisons to great novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Literary fiction – it is not! Thank you so much for making feel that I am not alone in disliking this book.

  4. Thank you for this. The book finally came up in my library queue after half my friends have gushed about it all year long. Now I’ve read it – and didn’t like it at all. I’m just hoping they don’t ask, because I hate having to tell someone who loves something that I thought it was bad.

    1. We had a very engaging discussion at our book club with some who loved and some who did not. It actually made for a pretty interesting discussion.

  5. Refreshing and a relief to read this review. While I did not hate it, I agree that it is overrated and flawed. I cannot get over the red herringstl and tied up loose ends in the last chapters. Kya is Amanda Hamilton? — wait, how does the real Amanda Hamilton feel about that?

  6. YES! The dialect and dialogue were both awful. Kya is a Boo Radley who is socially savvy whenever the author finds it convenient. Half-baked love story. At one point Jumpin threatens to get a posse after the most high-profile white guy in the white town – all to protect this white girl. REALLY? As if he doesn’t know what would happen to his own family and town and life if he does so? Bad.

  7. The author of WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING should stick to non-fiction biology because her eagerness to describe (what seemed to be) every molecule of the marsh became as boring as an 8th grade microbiology textbook. In addition- her incessant descriptive details came off more like indulgent observations as opposed to moving the story along.

    Speaking of having a story – there was such a low threshold to reach in the 1st part of the book that Kya and Tate’s 1st kiss – not an earth shattering event, mind you – at least made me put my coffee cup down as it jolted me awake.

    I also found the conversation of ALL the characters so cliche. “Jumpin” sounded like a character in a Shirley Temple movie – not a real, complicated man. Both Tate and Chase were cardboard Good and Bad Boys.

    Kya, however, was the most problematic. Goddess of the Marsh – I could see her on the cover of a cheap steamy romance novel. But then she also had this Howard the Hermit Hughes side. Don’t get me started on the Published Author career turn. The main problem with Kya is that the writer didn’t make her real (irregardless of plot turns). Kya was the author’s heroine- for sure. Unfortunately, the author saw her through rose-colored glasses because….in my opinion…Kya came off as a (albeit muddy) Disney Princess.

    I did enjoy Sunday Justice the Cat, however.

  8. Thank you. I also had a big quibble with the geography. They keep running off to Ashville, which would have been a 8-12 hour drive from the coast in the 50’s. Baltimore, Maryland would have been more accessible! I also find it hard to believe that a truant officer would never follow up or a social worker never go looking for a child they knew was alone out there. Sure, she was looked at as swamp trash, but some people did feel a responsibility to do their job and see that kids were educated and cared for (at least the white ones). And what about hurricanes?

  9. Thanks for this review. It ‘s helped me articulate lots if things I disliked about the book. (The comments helped too) i feel better about attending my Sept book club where some members have already heaped the praise

  10. I was thinking about dropping out of a book club and decided to do it now so I won’t have to face those who loved Where the Crawdads Sing. The plot seemed like a poorly done young adult romance. I couldn’t quibble about the setting as I live on the California coast. However, feeding seagulls? Here we would be attacked and have to fight them off. Not a nice picture.

  11. A close recommended this book and I had to tell her that I loved it, then my book group picked it and I reread it or rather I listened to the audio version. The parts that I couldn’t reconcile were that no one human came to check on her; her mother, her mother’s family, the school teachers, her siblings, her father, Tate’s father, anyone who saw her at Jumpin’s. How do you go from illiterate to college speaker when you seldom speak to anyone? I found the reference to the mosquito scooping out the previous mosquito’s sperm ridiculous and unbelievable. And finally, when Kya’s attorney describes how the timing of going to kill Chase while needing a boat and a bus ride back and forth more than enough the exonerate her, and I began to wonder how Kya could tell time? did she own a watch? How would she know to disguise herself? How did she spend her day besides making salted fish?
    Thanks for letting me vent as well.

  12. thank you for writing this! I felt duped by it….I was engaged initially by the nature narrative and the concept of nature as “mother”….but the romance and plot really fell flat for me. All of the things you’ve said and your commenters have said rang true for me. And I’m feeling kinda angry that so many think this is well written literature!

  13. Thanks for writing an honest review. No 6 year old calls a marsh an estuary. Nor would a 6 year old be able to start a boat engine and then run it that well.
    I agree that someone would have taken food out to her house and tried to help. Going to Asheville from the NC coast to do business was absurd. Where was the coastal dialect of the 1950’s? I could go on and on.

  14. OK guys, all very interesting, and in my opinion accurate. But what?…..Walter? What is IRREGARDLESS, aargh, that non-word is a pet peeve, not in the dictionary, and an unfortunate double negative becoming horribly common. Oh dear, my rant for the day! A great blog by the way 🙂

    1. “Irregardless” is a pet peeve of mine, too. If she used it, I totally missed it! I guess everything else was already too distracting.

  15. The thing I found truly unbelievable was that she was able to take the bus all the way from Greenville back to the fire tower, do all the things she had to do to avoid detection and cover up the crime, and then BACK to Greenville in plenty of time to meet again with her publisher. Did I miss something or did the cops just neglect to subpoena the bus records that would’ve clearly showed something was aloof? The D.A. talked about people in disguise on the bus, but really didn’t give any buildup. But this isn’t John Grisham. I found the dialect also suspect: she goes from this hick accent to–viola!–speaking in Ph.D. language. Maybe the author assumed that readers felt that given her self- and Tate-education, that she would progress to that kind of banter. Still, I empathized with Kya, living the gawd-awful life she led in abject loneliness, being shunned by the townsfolk. Now, I’m going back to my “swamp.”

    1. My thoughts exactly! How many folks could there be on that bus at that hour? Why not track them down to identify/eliminate the nervous and possibly disguised passenger!? On point as always L&L and thank you for an honest review of a book clearly written to appeal to Hollywood. Maybe a good screenwriter will make her mother the poet and clean up other loose ends to create more suspense. I predicted the ending when I saw the name of the final chapter.

  16. I’m so happy to “meet” all of you! I’ve been wondering if I had missed something in this book, all friends and family have been praising it and I thought it was mediocre at best. What a relief!

  17. Hello, I am half way through the book and struggling to finish. I’m glad to know that there are so many others who see it as I do. I was beginning to think perhaps I’ve turned “uppity” from reading too many literary novels and could no longer enjoy a well-written mainstream novel. I don’t think that’s the case, however, This book is beyond redemption in my view.
    I won’t rehash all that’s been said, but would like to add a bit about characterization. One of the biggest problems with this book, for me, is that the characters don’t ring true. For example, Kya has fond memories of her mother’s nurturing and gentle acts of kindness. Clearly, she is a woman of sensitivity who cares for her children, yet she leaves a man who abuses her when she knows full well that he also abuses the children. Really? And then, not only does she leave (all dressed up and ready to find a new life for herself, to hell with the kids), she never checks back on them? Never sends anyone after them? The character of Kya’s father is also problematic. Here’s a guy who turns into a jerk when he drinks. But why make the distinction if he’s supposedly a total jerk when he is sober too? The thing is, the author lets us see the father have some moments of bonding with his daughter; he teaches her to fish, gives her money, takes her out to eat. He even calls her “Hon.” And yet, after having established a connection, he can leave without a backward glance. He doesn’t seem to care if she’s easy prey or starves to death. Most people wouldn’t treat a pet that way, much less a kid. That is, unless the person is some kind of monster. And that’s the point; the father isn’t really so much a monster as a rage-aholic and an alcoholic. Or IS he a monster? The author can’t seem to make up her mind. Then we have the character of Tate. Wow. Teenage perfection in the form of a young male. A young male who so completely understands how lonely and rejected Kya feels after all the abandonment she has been subjected to, nonetheless turns around and does the same thing. He totally abandons her after carefully taming her wild spirit and spending months getting her to completely trust him. And all without so much as an explanation or a note…
    Other characters operate in the story as stock characters without dimension,
    the preoccupied social worker, the black store owner with a heart of gold and his heart-of-gold wife. And by the way, is there really no one in the entire town with a modicum of sympathy for a dirty, skinny child with no social skills and no parent in
    sight? Then there’s Kya herself. As some of you have noted, her natural beauty and allure is an imaginative stretch. I could, for the sake of the story, get past that. But her remarkable ability to unpack dense biology texts after a few reading lessons and no formal education is rather ludicrous. I know some have countered the criticism of this novel by saying it should be read as an allegory. My understanding of allegory is that you are typically dealing with a simple story that symbolizes a much more complicated issue. The ideas of “connection-to-nature vs. disconnection,” “rural folk vs. town folk,” “respect for nature vs. exploitation” all operate as themes, not allegory.

  18. Maybe you all should try the audio book Reads like a movie and most of your Criticisms are overshadowed by hearing Only point I make is there really is a poet named Amanda Hamilton

    1. I think this proves my point. If you have to listen to it by audio book to not be annoyed by the errors, it isn’t quality fiction.

      1. Hi, I just finished this book. 10 pages before the ending I noted to myself, Kya did it, I didn’t want that to be the case, but it makes sense. I kept thinking about that shell necklace.

        It was quite a sad book. That’s okay but it seemed like 2 authors. The courtroom to the end was very different than the beginning. Maybe, I thought, because Kya changed, was shut down after the murder.

        Anyway, it was fast forwarding , vacant and though Kya’s killing Chase was probable and predictable to me , her sneaking back on the bus is not realistic. I wish we had her inside story, like the entire book before the murder. I felt the author was just plowing through to the ending to answer The Who did it?

        Thanks for letting me share my honest thoughts.

        1. Interesting your point about two authors. I agree the courtroom scene was stronger than other parts – like maybe that section was more closely edited or workshopped than other sections.

  19. I hate being critical too. But in this case, I think you missed some genuine literary devices and got stuck in the swamp with details. In University, I studied Annie Dillard ‘s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek . I studied it in the context of science communication. In Dillard’s case, as the title suggests, this is religion versus science or the combination of them. In this way, this book is similar. Her words on shells, or other treasures, are not her own but those of the biology textbooks she’s been reading. That device shows us how disassociated she is from human feelings and attitudes – all her emotions are bound in her scientific look at human interactions. That is really where the book has strength for me. I don’t worry so much about the french bread or butter. I don’t remember her saying it was her favourite. But it’s just not important because literature doesn’t have to be a science 🙂 I see your points but the book speaks to Lady of Shallott, the pilgrims, and how some struggle to bond their spiritual side with the scientific.

  20. I had an issue with Tate talking about studying DNA and the double helix in 1960 in a small town in the south. My small town in the south did not cover this until later. (I have more details on this but my sister and I discussed this about 15 years ago when my son had to make a DNA double helix as a class project and we talked why this wasn’t covered in school when we attended.) It’s these kind of disconnects (like parroting scientific details rather than assimilating in her own voice to explain to Chase) that caused me to jump out of the story and I had to convince myself to jump back in. I would recommend you read Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. She did extensive writings on growing up in rural swamp areas in Florida and you are pulled into her stories. She won a Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling, written in 1939.

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