Review: The Alchemy of Letting Go - Amber Morrell
Updated: Jan 4
Genre: Middle-grade, Magical Realism
Published: Albert Whitman & Company, March 2023
Actual Rating: 2.5/5 stars
The Alchemy of Letting Go on paper is the exact kind of book that I love to review and recommend. It was sold to me as middle-grade fiction with a relatable portrayal of grief and a 12-year old girl with a strong science-interest in the lead. Grief + STEM + a hint of magic: sign me up!
Unfortunately, the execution of this book let me down, and although the book does nothing “wrong”, from the perspective of an own-voice sensitivity reader and reviewer, I cannot give this story more than 3 stars.
We follow Juniper Lane, a 12-year old entomologist-to-be, who “caught the bug” from her scientist parents and older sister Ingrid, who was fascinated with the local endangered butterfly population. Since Ingrid tragically passed away 2 years ago, Juniper has picked up her research. An incident during one of her fieldtrips leads her to discover newfound abilities that blur the line between magic and science. Juniper tries an experiment to change things back to the way they were, but the results aren’t what she expected.
What I liked:
I really liked the combination of magic and science featured in this story. Early on in the story, things begin to happen that Juniper cannot explain. She turns to what she knows; her scientific mind, to try to make sense of these events and treats the magic as an experiment in a new science subject. Many middle-grade magic stories are about the protagonists learning to “control their emotions” in order to control their magic. I loved seeing a different side in this story; one of a girl who’s already very rational in her approach, learning that it’s okay to show and feel her softer and more emotional side.
Mateo as a side character in particular helped as her counterpart, and I loved their accepting and supportive friendship.
What I didn’t like:
There are 2 things that a middle-grade book about grief must nail in my opinion; a relatable portrayal of our protagonist and their grief, and a positive/helpful/supportive representation of the adult figures in their lives. For me, both were lacking a little.
The first is mostly due to Junipers character, who I found very unlikable. She’s extremely flatly written; her only character trait being that she likes science, which we’re told about 2x every page. She’s also very single-minded in that and has little regard for the feelings of others around her. It made it difficult to emotionally connect to her, when even something so personal as the magical search for the sister she misses so much, is seemingly nothing more than an experiment to her.
Some of the biggest misconceptions us STEM-girls/women face is the stereotype of the “emotionally stunted kid without a social radar”. Having our protagonist fall into many of these traps doesn’t seem like a great portrayal for a children’s novel. Granted; Juniper is called out on her behaviour, but isn’t shown to learn from it on page.
The same argument can be made for Junipers parents as the relevant adult figures in her life. They’re shown as similarly cold and rational and don’t offer any healthy support or help. This is crucial to any good middle-grade grief for me: we have to teach our kids that it’s okay to seek (adult) help in these situations.
Finally, there’s a tricky trope used that I don’t think worked out the way the author intended. I’m generally not a fan of the “bringing-the-dead-back-to-life”-trope. The forever-ness of death is one of the scariest things to face in grief, and this trope undercuts it.
I understand what the book tried to do: to have this experience teach Juniper that bringing her sister back was impossible, and things wouldn’t be the same as before regardless. I don’t like the way it was done however for multiple reasons:
1. Juniper first realises that the girl she brought back isn’t her sister because “she likes other things than science now”. I’m a little baffled how the author thought this was a good idea. People change in 2 years’ time, and the way this was handled almost made it feel like Juniper would rather have the memory of her deceased sister than a sister who’s grown and expanded their interests. Not to mention the plot-hole that this sister was supposedly a representation of Junipers memory of her. In that case, she should’ve been the exact opposite, as they idealized version Juniper remembers her as.
2. In the end, Juniper accepts and lets go of the idea of bringing her sister back. Yet the magical not-sister still remains as a presence in her life and even becomes sort of a friend of hers. The message of “you might not get your sister back, but here’s a new friend for your trouble” seemed very strange to me.
Overall, I can see the beautiful butterfly at the core of this novel, but I feel it needed a few changes within the cocoon to work for me. It’s an enjoyable middle-grade magical adventure story, but as a story about grief I can’t quite recommend it.
Many thanks to Albert Whitman & Company for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Find this book here on Goodreads.