Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Her words were like islands, just the visible tips of mountains underneath.”
Veronika, Caroline, Isobel and Eleanor live on a remote island with Irene and Robbert, their caretakers. They spend their repetitive days observing and learning about the island around them. It is clear that these four girls are unusual, but the true extent of their difference is only revealed by the arrival of May, who is stranded by a ship wreck. May has lived all her life on board a boat with her uncle, and has never been to school. Her uncle went to great efforts to hide her from the world, though it is not clear why he did so. Where Veronika, Caroline, Isobel and Eleanor are cautious and observant, May is reckless and impulsive. In addition to making the girls realize that they are not quite normal, May provides a window on the outside world, which they know so little about. While May’s arrival is an unprecedented learning opportunity for the girls, her presence also threatens to undo all of Irene and Robbert’s careful years of work.
Although the four girls are very similar, Veronika serves as our narrator. The directness and austerity of her first person narration allows the reader to inhabit the uniquely analytic perspective which makes the four girls so different from May. However, this perspective also handicaps the reader, as we are constrained by Veronika’s naïve world view. We quickly realize that Robbert and Irene are more than simply caretakers, but the slightly off-kilter details are only slowly revealed. In some ways, this story is a mystery, in which the reader must struggle to piece together the tiny details which we have only seen through the eyes of a character with a mind that is entirely unlike our own. By the midpoint of the book, the plot was still frustratingly vague, and the slow build led to a profoundly unsatisfying conclusion. Many, if not the majority, of questions raised by the book are left unanswered. Near the end of the book, Veronika comes into possession of Robbert’s notebook, in which he records everything about their work on this island. This was the perfect opportunity the let the reader in on more of the back story, but Dahlquist simply let it slip by. The Different Girl is in an interesting exercise in seeing the world from a unique perspective, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of plot development.