For how familiar people are (not to mention infatuated) with the story of Peter Pan, I have not seen very many modern iterations of the boy who never grew up. People have certainly dared to imagine Peter Pan in alternate fantasy universes, and even when would happen if he did grow up. But I’m not sure if there’s been a 20th century Peter Pan story where the Darling family lives in rural America and the true origins of Neverland rear their terrifying heads.
Wendy Darling has just turned eighteen, so it has now been five years since she returned from a strange adventure in the nearby woods without her brothers John and Michael. Everyone wonders what happened to the two boys, and Wendy has no memories of why they went into the woods or what happened there. All she knows is what her mother told her children in her stories of Peter Pan, a mysterious, enchanted boy who never ages. Then, Peter Pan himself drops into Wendy’s life, asking for her help in defeating an old foe, and presenting Wendy with a chance to find her brothers again…
It’s not surprising that Wendy would be the focus of this book. After all, even in the original story, she is the one who, well, grows up the most. And she is a pretty good protagonist, I think. She is kind, but sometimes sarcastic. She is very tender towards kids and wants to work with them someday. If Wendy Darling were alive today, this seems pretty accurate to how I would picture her.
But certainly there is an element of tragedy to Wendy’s gentleness. She did lose her two brothers to mysterious circumstances, after all, and she has longed to see them return.
Even worse is the toll it takes on Wendy’s parents. Mrs. Darling works overtime and talks to her sons in her sleep, while Mr. Darling stays in his study with a bottle of scotch. It’s certainly not the fun-loving but ordered Darling home that J.M. Barrie envisioned.
Speaking of, if you know your J.M. Barrie trivia, you’ll spot all kinds of references to not only his name, but the Llewelyn-Davies family, who inspired Mr. Barrie to write the original Peter Pan play.
And just like that story, this story explores the nuances of “growing up.” When have you officially become too old for Neverland? What if you are technically “grown up,” but still find your way into that magic place? What even is Neverland, anyway? And for that matter, who even is Peter Pan himself?
Peter is still a cocky clown here, though, through some mixup in Neverland, he has begun to grow. It’s kind of cute watching him wrestle with such an alien concept as growing up. Though, of course, this being a YA retelling, he will grow into a lean, but still muscly young lad that captures Wendy’s attention pretty fast.
But returning to how this book pays homage to the play, it resurrects some of its darker elements. I shan’t explain them in detail here because, spoilers, but it made the story more adult and mature than I expected.
There are some things that could have used a little more development, though. For instance, the reason why John and Michael disappeared. I dare not spoil it, but it came a little out of left field and was a little underwhelming.
Peter mentions having known Mrs. Darling when she was a girl, but that she has grown up and forgotten about him. That’s a sweet idea, but almost doesn’t seem explored enough.
You also don’t quite feel like you know John and Michael. They pretty much remain like the Disney cartoons versions or whatever scrap knowledge you might have had about the characters. Maybe if we had a sideways story of Wendy, John, and Michael’s adventures alongside Peter, both the children and the place would have felt closer to the reader. It would have made the story a little more crowded, but then, any story about siblings visiting magical lands together is special to me.
And, despite the book’s dark, melancholy tone, there is still enough magic and whimsy to feel like a Peter Pan story. Like I said, the more mature elements of the play help elevate it beyond a wish-fulfilment Neverland escapade.
In all, the book does a great job exploring these familiar characters in a more nuanced, adult way. If you like Peter Pan, I’d recommend it. If you like fantasy stories with a healthy mix of melancholy and whimsy, it’s a good fit too.