Some Thoughts on Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I don’t read a lot of bestselling mainstream novels. Very often, I don’t even hear about them. But from time to time there’s a book that sells so many copies that I’m interested to find out what the fuss is all about. Especially when the premise sounds intriguing like in the case of Where the Crawdads Sing. The premise of a girl growing up on her own in the swampy marsh of Northern Carolina and becoming one with the nature that surrounds her. Delia Owens is well known as a wildlife scientist and published three nonfiction books before writing her first novel. That, too, sounded intriguing. That was also pretty much all I knew about the book when I started to read. You can imagine how surprised I was, when I discovered that there’s a dead body in the swamp at the beginning of the book. It’s only then that I became aware that the book was called a blend between love story/crime/court room drama. And that brings us right to my biggest reservation – sometimes a blend works but in this case it doesn’t. It’s neither a proper crime story, nor is it purely a love story and the courtroom part, I’m sorry to say, is ludicrous.

I did like the beginning which was mostly set in the past, in the 50s, and told the very tragic story of a small child, Kya, who was first abandoned by her mother, then by her siblings and finally also by her father, an abusive drunk. She’s only ten and decides to survive on her own, knowing very well if the authorities found out she’s been abandoned, she’d land in the foster care system. These parts not only introduce us to an amazing ecosystem but also to a way of life. It seems like the marsh is a world of its own, with its own rules, outside of society. Because Kya is intelligent and observes the world around her, she’s able to survive. She also gets some outside help from a black family, pretty much outsiders too, in this small town. She also meets a boy who teaches her to read and write, which will have very surprising consequences.

While the beginning was strong, the descriptions of the landscape so detailed that I felt like I was visiting the marsh, the book quickly went downhill after that. I had a feeling that Delia Owens had an idea for a story, a very intriguing idea, and a love for a landscape but no plot. And, so, she decided to add a crime story that then turned into a courtroom drama à la To Kill a Mockingbird.

The crime idea might not have been a bad one. There are many novels about a crime that are very successful without being really crime novels. But for me, this one didn’t work. She should have written either proper crime or searched for a plot somewhere else. The result is full of inconsistencies and lacks realism. The character development is also rather dubious, and the use of vernacular is just terrible.

You’ll be surprised to hear that despite all these reservations, I didn’t mind reading the book. I loved the way this landscape was brought to life. I found the way Delia Owens conveyed how Kya fought against her loneliness by becoming one with the flora and fauna that surrounded her believable and well done.

It’s less a bad book than a missed opportunity. This could have been very good. The question that remains is – why did this become such a major bestseller? She sold over 4million copies of the book even though the publisher only printed 23,000 copies at first. The reason might be the choice of setting. I wasn’t surprised to find out that many people who loved this novel are very interested in ecological themes. I don’t know many books where nature plays such a significant role and where the intricacies of ecosystems are shown so well. I have no doubts that Delia Owens is a very good nonfiction writer.

I hope I was able to give you an idea, especially, if, like me, you were curious about this book. Maybe, now that you’re forewarned about the flaws, you might enjoy it more. Nature lovers, people who are interested in the marshes of North Carolina, those with in an interest in ecology and specific ecosystems, will still find a lot to like here.

40 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

    • Not at all but you can sense she’s highly knowledgeable. Also about what it means to be in the wild on your own. I just meant to say, I’m sure she’s a good nonfiction writer.

  1. This is one of those books I keep looking at and then somehow not buying. I think it’s the mix of crime/coming of age/mainstream women’s that made me unsure what it is exactly. Thanks – you’ve reassured me that I was right to give it a miss!

    • I don’t mind that I read it but it’s a mixed bag. I write the review mostly because I was hoping I could help people to make a decision, so I’m glad it helps. It’s one of those books where reading the first pages can be very misleading.

  2. I have Skimmed your review, as I have this tbr. Sorry you weren’t convinced by part of this. I think I was drawn to the location and time period of this novel.

    • Those are fantastic but the plot is artificial and the twist at the end, which wasn’t really a twist, rather she tried to make it so . . . I remember your reservations.

  3. It sounds intriguing, if overstuffed. Sometimes books can work when they take in multiple elements like this, but it seems that this one doesn’t. Like you, I don’t read many modern novels and I suspect I would find this one as frustrating as you – which is a shame, because the ecological elements do sound good.

    • She wanted to do a bit too much but ended up doing a bit of everything and nothing right, from a plot perspective. And it is a shame as it had the potential of being more than a bestseller but really good. The structure is totally off and there are so many POV mistakes. Totally forgot to mention them. Not sure how they passed the editor’s eye.

  4. I’ve seen this book but haven’t read it yet. I really liked your review and thought it seemed like a very fair summary. I may still read the book but it will be helpful to bear your comments in mind!!

    • I’m glad it doesn’t put you off. It has its strengths but from a craft perspective it’s lacking. I still like to write fair reviews especially when some elements are well done. The descriptions of the marsh, flora and fauna are haunting. I think it will be made into a movie and I really would like to watch it. I hope you will enjoy it.

  5. Thank you so much for this thoughtful review. I think I am one of a great many writers who wonders sometimes about a huge popular success. Yes, of course I believe that I must write what I must write, that it has to come from my heart, my soul, that I cannot write anything else, that life is just too short to write anything else. And yet….hahaha. Sometimes I do wonder. Could I, should I, attempt to write a blockbuster, pull no punches, try top go all mainstream, try the popular market route. And it sounds like this author did just that. And then I wonder, well, say I did, and say I had the miracle happen of a huge popular success, would I be happier? Would I feel fulfilled? I don’t know. I just don’t know. And probably an irrelevant musing. I am not sure I want to read the book. I am more interested in musing about that kind of book.

    • My pleasure, Andrew. I think I would love to write a bestseller but one that’s appreciated for its craft as well like Cold Mountain for example. But this one? No, really not. I’m glad for her, happy she seems to be giving many people joy but I wouldn’t want to be the author. Like the Da Vinci Code. It was so trite. Plot wise though it was well done unlike this one. But the sloppy handling of POV – that was the worst. But why was it ultimately not only a major but a mega seller? No clue. Right time, I suppose. People have a new interest in ecology and nature.
      From writer to writer – this isn’t the book to read if you want to write a bestseller. It will teach you nothing. The Da Vinci Code at least teaches you plotting and pacing. I used to read bestsellers because I wanted to learn something. Thus one I picked for the premise which I still think is great.

  6. I am happy that I decided to check out your review although I had read several reviews earlier . There had been too many reviews gushing about this one. It is good to read a review which does not agree with the popular opinion and I know how difficult it is to write one . For myself, I experienced this for the first time when I reviewed The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley . . . Almost all the bloggers who had reviewed it were raving about it and I know it went on to become a huge hit . . . I looked up other reviews to see if any other blogger had similar issues with the book but I could not see one . I even wondered if I had missed out something . . . Since then there have been other reviews where I seemed to have totally opposite ideas to the popular opinion and I am totally fine with it nowadays . . .

    • It’s not always easy but I think there are always people who will agree but might not want to be the odd ones out. I shy away from writing totally negative review. When I really hate something, I don’t tend to write about it but here, I felt it’s almost an obligation. I can see why some people love it but it is very flawed.
      But I get your hesitation to be the only one to write a negative review. I’ve seen a few negative reviews of this one but it’s a minority. I think it’s great you’re not minding that many might see it differently. I haven’t read the book you mention but will keep your reservations in mind.

  7. I have been really resistant to this book because I get suspicious when everyone – and in the case I really mean everyone! – is reading it. I’ve heard it’s patchy. I think I’ll give it a miss.

    • I’m a lot like you. It’s a rare instance my curiosity got the better if me. Patchy is the right word. Not sure why the editor didn’t improve it. It’s not a must read unless you gave an almost obsessive fascination with marshes and swamps like I do.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say. I am reluctant to speak my true feelings about this book to those who love it — I don’t want to spoil their pleasure — but I also thought it had great potential and some severe weaknesses. Too silly and over the top in the end, though the depiction of the marsh setting was brilliant.

    • I’m very glad to hear you felt the same and know exactly what you mean. To be honest, when I first finished it my feelings were even a little harsher. The courtroom drama made me cringe and the twist . . . Don’t get me started. Still, it’s not bad. It’s just far from perfect. It’s more like it was published before the final edit/rewrite. Luckily, I don’t know anyone who has read it and hope my review was fair even for someone who loved it.

  9. I’m curious about this one for the same reasons you’ve cited. Just what *is* it that pulls sooo many readers to a single book. Maybe it’s the cover? 🙂

    • I still have no idea. I can explain maybe 1million but four? Was it Reese Whiterspoon‘s endorsement because she chose it for her book club? I think if there was a real answer, there would be a possibility to replicate a similar success. It’s a good cover for the story but is it striking?

  10. Sounds as if you’ve been very fair and balanced in your review, highlighting the novel’s strengths and limitations. It’s interesting you should mention the Harper Lee as it came to mind as I was reading your piece…

    • Thanks, Jacqui, I’m glad to hear it.
      I found the Harper Lee connection jarring. It felt exploitive and ultimately didn’t work.
      I don’t think you’ll read this but I still won’t say more as I would have to spoil the book.

  11. Wonderful review, Caroline. From what you have said, the first part of the book looks wonderful and I am so tempted to read. Sad that the crime story and the courtroom drama don’t work. Wish she had stayed with the first part and made it more detailed. I am still undecided whether to read this. But nice to know that a scientist wrote a novel and it is selling like hotcakes. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    • Thank you, Vishy.
      I think it would have worked as a crime novel but to explain why, you’d have to have read it because if you still pick it up and I telly you why it’s utterly spoilt.
      I know you’re a more generous reader than me and possibly you’d like it more. Especially after ebing forewarned. I remember you loving The Language of Flowers while I had a problem with it. It’s not like The Weekend. That was just so bad, something I rarely say about a book.in a way, I’d be interested to hear what you think of this. But there are so many books and just reading something to form an opinion . . . Is it worth it?

      • Will give it a try sometime then, Caroline. Will see how far I am able to read 🙂 Yes, I loved The Language of Flowers. I remember The Weekend 🙂 I read it inspite of you warning not to, and it was bad, really bad 😁

        • That was such a bad book. I don’t say that very often. I definitely don’t give that kind of warning here. I liked it less than most but compared to The Weekend it’s a masterpiece. And I’m still thinking of the descriptions. I loved them.

  12. I am thankful to you for saving me from this book, Caroline. I have been running into this book on all social media websites, and I am passively influenced. I would love to read the parts on the marsh, and how a child learns to survive there, but if it digresses, I am sure I would be disappointed. So, I will pass. Thank you for this sharp review, Caroline.

    • I’m glad you found my review helpful. It’s not so much the digression as the unbelievable developments. The split timeline works well but once they are combined . . . Just not believable at all. It gets way more positive reviews than critical ones. Even in newspapers. The flaws are so glaring, no clue why people didn’t notice or don’t mention it. I get it that someone might like it in spite of the flaws but not even seeing them?

  13. The reason this book garnered so much attention is because the actress Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club. I would not be surprised if she turned this into a movie, as she has done with Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere. I knew this was one of her “picks,” so went in knowing it was probably going to be pure escape. I too found it unconvincing but loved the marsh descriptions.

    • I heard that I just wonder if it can really explain 4milkion copies. I think she wants to turn it into a movie. The descriptions are wonderful but apart from that – it’s not believable. I’ll be more careful with her picks from now on.

  14. I had resisted this one because it had so much attention but it was chosen for the book club. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the sections which deal with Kya’s life in the marshes and her interaction with nature. The love interest started off as quite sweet but the more the novel went on, the more ho-hum the novel became. And I had a real problem with the final section.

  15. Thanks for writing your review of this book. Given how well this book has done, I spent some time wondering what I was missing and why I was unable to appreciate this book as much. I felt, just like you, that after creating a strong female lead in a spectacular setting, the author didn’t know what to do with her. The plot was indeed a terrible let down.

    • My pleasure, Airak. It’s so disappointing, isn’t it? The idea was so good but she didn’t really have a story. I hesitated at first to write this review but now I’m glad. I wonder if there aren’t more people who didn’t like this but didn’t dare admitting it.

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