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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Review: The Alternatives Caoilinn Hughes

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published: Oneworld Publications, May 2024

My Rating: 3/5 stars

The Alternatives is perfectly described by another Goodreads reviewer as “Contemporary Little Women, but they are all depressed. I really wanted to love this family saga of four sisters, not quite estranged but getting close, attempting to reconnect… Unfortunately, for each great idea or brilliant line, there was at least one equally clumsy bit. Eventually, I had to push myself to finish the novel, despite my best efforts.

The Story:

The Flattery sisters were plunged prematurely into adulthood when their parents died in tragic circumstances. Now in their thirties—all single, all with PhDs—they are each attempting to do meaningful work in a rapidly foundering world. The four lead disparate, distanced lives, from classrooms in Connecticut to ritzy catering gigs in London’s Notting Hill, until one day their oldest sister, a geologist haunted by a terrible awareness of the earth’s future, abruptly vanishes from her work and home. Together for the first time in years, the Flatterys descend on the Irish countryside in search of a sister who doesn’t want to be found.

What I liked:

The backflap describes this as “a book of ideas”, and rightly so. Caoilinn Hughes clearly planned, plotted and thought out this novel exquisitely from beginning to end. Through these individual characters, she tackles large societal topics (ranging from politics, health-care and wealth-disparity to climate change) and communicates a clear opinion on them. Whether this is a positive or negative for you as a reader will largely depend on if you agree with her statements, but the messages she aims to deliver is received loud and clear.

It makes for an incredibly layered reading experience, where each characters is representative of a larger thing. This stuff is my personal catnip, so for the first 1/3 I was eager to find out where the author would take each of these characters, and how they would all collide once reunited.

What I didn’t like:

Unfortunately, this is where the story began to lose me a bit. It’s only about 40% of the way through that we actually see the sisters interact for the first time with each other. In my opinion, that was too late, and let to the pacing feeling a bit off-balance.

Additionally, for a story so focused on a small cast of characters, I was surprised by how uninvested and disconnected I felt from all of them by the end of their chapters. Perhaps that was mostly because the characters never felt like people to me, but rather “vessels” for the author to communicate the aforementioned messages through. There are multiple occasions where they are metaphors instead of people; to varying degrees of success.

The metaphors and analogies are countless and range from creative to heavy-handed to far-fetched. Whenever it fell in the latter category, things could get really grating…

There is a point where too much is packed into one single novel... A point where a story becomes so oversaturated with themes that it becomes a manifesto rather than a story. A point where the width of the scope comes at the cost of the depth of the characters and the impact they make...

The Alternatives never fully reaches that point, but teeters so close to it, that it shoots itself in the foot.

Overall, this is a novel that I loved on paper, but struggled to connect with in practice. You mileage may vary. I can see this book being nominated for a bunch of prizes, and detested by readers as a “pretentious slog” in equal parts. Both opinions are valid. I sit somewhere in the middle…

Many thanks to Oneworld Publications for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

You can find this book here on Goodreads.


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