Book Review: The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler – 4 stars

I recently received an electronic Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler and was excited to have the chance to read it. The cover is fantastic (as you can see above) and I truly believe that a great cover is the first step toward drawing in the reader. The Magnetic Girl is 280 pages and I found it to be a quick read. I really enjoyed the book and have to say it was a sleeper for me…by which I mean that, I’ve found myself thinking about it a great deal more than I thought I would now that I’ve finished it.

The Magnetic Girl

The Magnetic Girl is a fictionalized account of the life of Lulu Hurst – a performer in the late 1800s who entertained crowds by performing ‘tests’ on stage that would demonstrate movement in her volunteers via her ‘magnetic touch.’ While Handler did research Hurst through her 1897 autobiography and other sources, key elements of the book are made up. I had no problem with that: the details of Hurst’s life were interesting but did not, to me, seem to be the point of the book. Rather, The Magnetic Girl is, in my opinion, an exploration of beliefs, motives and what we will do to ‘belong.’

Handler’s book is written in a couple of different time periods. It begins with some history from before Lulu was born and then focuses almost exclusively on Lulu’s life. The only difficulty I had with this novel was that, even after it settled on the timeframe of Lulu’s life, it switched back and forth from first person (Lulu’s perspective) to third person intermittently. While I’m not a person with a bias for a certain perspective (I’ve heard people say, ‘I hate books written in first person’) I do feel like there needs to be a discernible reason for switching it up randomly from chapter to chapter. I found it a little jarring to go back and forth without explanation. Nevertheless, I found Handler’s characters well-drawn and sympathetic and her plot unfolded in a way that drew me along. I love good characters, a good story and a book that leaves me thinking.

With regard to The Magnetic Girl’s story, Lulu Hurst is depicted as a rather naive country girl from Georgia who is impacted early in her childhood by an event that takes place with her younger brother. The trauma she experiences from that event sets the stage for much of what happens after. She discovers, accidentally, a book about ‘mesmeric influence’ hidden in her father’s study and begins to believe that she has certain special powers that allow her to captivate others and begins to quietly study the art of mesmerism in secret.

When her father discovers her secret practice, he confides in her that the book she discovered was written by her maternal grandmother and convinces her that she has inherited that grandmother’s special powers. He teaches a backward, shy Lulu to perform her tricks for an audience and takes her and her mother on the road so that she perform and make money for the family.

Lulu learns a great deal on the road – not least of all about herself and her family. In being exposed to various people in cities big and small, she begins to gain confidence and seek agency. The developments that occur as she grows into herself will leave you thinking about her choices and those of the people around her long after her journey is over within the pages of The Magnetic Girl.

I learned a great deal about society in the late 1800s through this book and got to read about developments in our country at that time (technological, political and social.) I found it very rewarding to gain that learning through the lens of a heartwarming yet heartbreaking story of a young woman’s coming of age. I recommend The Magnetic Girl to anyone who wants to explore a ‘real-life’ account of growing up and explore their thoughts about family, self and the choices we make for each.

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