by Chih Wang
Liz Michalski’s Darling Girl is a reimagining of the Peter Pan world—world because it doesn’t retell the story of Peter Pan but follows Holly Darling, the granddaughter of Wendy Darling, in a contemporary world where the Darlings are real people famous for inspiring the “fairytale” of Peter Pan.
Holly runs a successful American cosmetics company, but the sparkle of her makeup and newest launch, a highlighter called Pixie Dust, is just a cover-up for researching a rare condition that rapidly ages her daughter, Eden, who is in a coma, tucked away in England and hidden even from the knowledge of her older brother, Jack. It quickly becomes apparent that this research is also crucial to the delicate health of Jack, who barely survived a car accident that killed Holly’s husband many years ago.
While on her way to an important corporate meeting, Holly gets a call. Eden has vanished without a trace except for an open window. There is only one person Holly can think is responsible for her daughter’s disappearance, and considering that he isn’t supposed to be real, she is the only one who can find her daughter. She must fly (on a plane) back to England to confront a past that she had kept so tightly hidden away, and she must do it soon for the sake of both her children’s lives.
The missing daughter is the first mystery to hook you. As Holly searches for her, layers upon layers of secrets are built up around her and then slowly peeled off in flashbacks and confrontations. Secrets like why Jack needs Eden’s blood in order to survive. Why Peter wants Eden for himself. Why Peter visited Wendy and Holly, but skipped over Wendy’s mother, Jane, who is enthralled by the romanticized version of him and is desperate to meet him. And then there is the dark and awful reason why Holly Darling is the only one still alive who knows just how truly dangerous he is.
This tale is an adult, suspenseful reinterpretation that takes the classic Peter Pan themes of the pursuit of youth and escapism and twists it, flips it over, showing its dark underbelly. The theme of youth is most obvious in Michalski’s choice of careers for Holly. What is a more fitting career than helping people look young? Though she tries to distance herself from her Peter Pan ties, Holly exploits the Darling family name for branding, proving that nothing is kept innocent in Michalski’s world. Darling Girl delves into how far people will go in the pursuit of youth, the terrible acts that are both self-inflicted and inflicted on others, whether they be for reasons that are selfish or for the sake of others.
Another twisting of noble ideals is a parent’s love for their children and striking that precarious balance between well-intentioned protectiveness and stunting a child’s growth into independence. The main force of the story is driven by Holly doing everything she can to protect and care for Eden and Jack. Holly’s desperation and worry come through sharply and sometimes frustratingly so because it is also easy to see from the children’s point of view of her sometimes overbearing ways. Her protectiveness is a double-edged sword. Many of the story complications come from this prosaic struggle between worried parent and rebellious teenager—though the consequences do fly on the fantastical side.
Despite the urgency of the search for Eden, Darling Girl takes it time exploring the dark corners of its world before really taking off toward one final visit with Peter Pan. Along the way, there are many clever nods to the original story and a small romance subplot. But be forewarned: this book contains sexual assault, physical and mental abuse, thoughts of suicide, and drug use, though the abusive content is described particularly well without being gratuitous.
Michalski does a wonderful job in not only reinterpreting Peter Pan in a dark and suspenseful modern story, but exploring generational trauma and grief, the corruption of innocence and inevitable loss of youth, motherhood and self-sacrifice. They contrast starkly with the original Peter Pan story of the carefree, parent-less adventures. In some ways, this book presents the point of view of the parent that read Peter Pan to their children, the parent that thought about how much the original Mr. and Mrs. Darling must have worried about their missing children, playing into a parent’s worst nightmare.
Chih Wang graduated from the University of California, Riverside in Palm Desert with a Masters Degree of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She also holds a certificate in Copyediting from the University of California, San Diego Extension. She served as Fiction Editor and Copyeditor at The Coachella Review and currently copyedits for Kelp Journal. She runs her own freelance copyediting business, CYW Editing, specializing in fiction. A San Diego native, she spends her free time working on her novel, a contemporary fantasy, or hanging in the air, practicing aerial silks and hammock.