Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Reviewed by Hallie O'Donovan
06 November 2009
To start with full disclosure: I read Shiver as a Maggie Stiefvater fan, rather than in detached review mode. I read her first novel, Lament, earlier this year and loved it, though with a love that could still see the odd flaw, and am still impatiently waiting for the sequel, Ballad. Since reading Lament, I've been following Stiefvater on LiveJournal, and got my order in for Shiver as soon as it was published in the US.
Shiver is told through the alternating first-person narratives of Grace and Sam, two teenagers living in Mercy Falls, Minnesota. Mercy Falls is a small town surrounded by woods—woods in which Grace was nearly killed by wolves six years earlier. Despite that, Grace is obsessed with the wolves, watching them through the winter and missing them in the summer when they're not there. She especially watches the one she calls her wolf. Her wolf is Sam, and like the rest of the pack living in Boundary Wood, he's actually human during the warm months and a wolf only when the weather turns cold. Jack, a boy from Grace's high school, is apparently killed by the wolves, although Grace sees a wolf she's sure is Jack, after rumour leaks out that his body has been stolen from the morgue. When Jack's father organizes a hunt to destroy the wolves, Grace tries to get it stopped by telling the police that a friend of hers is in the woods photographing the wolves, and then runs to her house, where she finds Sam, who's been shot. She instantly recognises Sam as her wolf despite his being in human form. You might think finding out that your love interest is a werewolf would be a serious downer, but Grace is actually more pleased than otherwise, as it's a far better alternative than being in love with a regular wolf, no matter how much of an animal-lover you are.
Grace takes Sam to the hospital, but it turns out that werewolves are extremely quick to heal, and she has to move him elsewhere before anyone notices. As the rest of the pack have already changed to wolf-form for the winter, Sam has nowhere else to go, so Grace brings him back to her house. Her parents are extraordinarily (but for the most part credibly) neglectful, and Sam is able to stay in the house for weeks without their having any idea that he's there. Sam understands neither why he had so little time as a human the previous summer nor why being shot changed him back into human form. As he and Grace fall more and more in love, they increasingly dread their inevitable parting, when slightly warmer temperatures and staying indoors as much as possible will no longer suffice to keep him human.
Beyond that, it's hard to talk about the book's plot. One of the pleasures of Shiver is the pacing of the disclosure of information; just as a gap in the reader's knowledge becomes evident, another piece of information will be given. It added much to my enjoyment, but makes it much harder to write a review without prematurely indicating a gap's existence, as it were. And such gaps abound. There's Grace's attack by the wolves and her response to it, which isn't as straightforward as it seems initially; there's what happened to Sam when he was bitten and turned into a werewolf (and no question about it, his parents' behaviour makes for very disturbing reading), and most of all there's the nature of these werewolves. Stiefvater has said that she sticks closely to traditional lore when writing about Faerie, as in Lament and Ballad, but felt free to depart from werewolf lore, and much as I loved the abundance of traditional faerie lore in Lament, I also found the "everything you thought you knew about werewolves is wrong" approach of Shiver highly enjoyable.
Shiver is a very contained story. The town is small, the number of people who know about the wolves even smaller, and there's no big story arc about villainous attempts to gain power in order to control the world. In fact, there's really no villain in the conventional (fantasy) sense. If Sam and Grace can't figure out a way to keep Sam human, he won't even die, although his lifespan as a wolf will be much shorter than it would be as a human. For much of the book Sam and Grace spend their time in Grace's house, with Grace going off to school and Sam occasionally going out to the empty pack leader's house or the woods, looking for Jack, the new werewolf, who's highly unstable and a threat to them all. Grace has two friends, Rachel and Olivia, and Jack's sister Isabel joins the action when she discovers that Jack isn't dead after all, and he tells her that Grace knows about the wolves. These, Grace's conspicuously absent parents, and two werewolves, Beck and Shelby, are pretty much the only significant characters in the book.
Some of this concentration of focus relates to the fact that Shiver is a romance, rather than a fantasy with a romantic element. Occasionally it's a little bit on the soppy side for my taste—one too many mentions of Sam's sad or mournful eyes, for example—but for the most part it works. Sam and Grace have a reason for the intensity of their focus on each other, given the likelihood that a few weeks together is all they'll ever have. And other relationships are not neglected—that between Grace and her parents, for example, or that between Sam and Beck, the closest thing he has to a father. (A scene with Beck was the first to reduce me to tears, in fact.) More importantly, perhaps, is a vein of self-deprecating humour, as when Sam translates Grace's compliments:
"You don't think of me as a delicate flower in comparison to you?" When I laughed again, he pressed, "Okay, what words would you use then?"
I leaned back in the seat, thinking, as Sam looked at me doubtfully. He was right to look doubtful. My head didn't work with words very well—at least not in this abstract, descriptive sort of way. "Sensitive," I tried.
Sam translated: "Squishy."
"Feng shui." (p. 207)
There is pleasure to be found not only in the depiction of relationships, but in the natural and mythological details: the pack behaviour as wolves, for example, or the—imperfectly understood—mechanisms by which the weather causes Sam and the others to change and what it is like for them when they do. Though I'm leery of describing any book as X meets Y, the enjoyment I had on reading Shiver really felt similar to watching a David Attenborough nature special combined with the tensest and most baffling of House episodes. With romance.
Throughout the book, tension builds as Sam struggles to find a way he can prevent himself from changing back into a wolf, for what he gradually realises will be his last time. Stiefvater uses a variant of the "ticking clock" to heighten the grip of the story: each chapter starts with a temperature instead of a date. Unlike a regular clock, of course, this one can behave completely randomly, and that's much more frightening even than a predictable countdown. There are no easy solutions, and enjoyably fluid boundaries between magic and medical/natural science. At one point Grace asks Sam whether he thinks there's a cure. When he doesn't answer she pushes him as to whether "it" is science or magic. It matters to her because if it's magic it would be "intangible," while science has answers (p. 244). Sam isn't interested in the distinction, believing that "it's all the same. The only thing magical about it is that we can't explain it." (p. 245). When eventually forced into attempting a cure, despite their inability to understand it, the attempt is truly a desperate one, far more likely to fail—fail badly—than to cure.
Similarities to Twilight are fairly obvious, in that both are YA romances involving a girl in love with a supernatural guy, a small-town rural setting, and the guy's non-human nature causing all kinds of grief for the two as a couple. And how the girl smells merits more than a passing remark in both. But Grace, unlike Bella, isn't passive and helpless in the face of the romantic hero's awesome strength. She's capable, pragmatic and acute—in all matters except reading other people's behaviour and motivations. But that's not a character flaw that will keep pushing her into Sam's arms. Meanwhile, Sam, unlike so many violent and humourless heroes of supernatural romance, is tentative and poetic and all too aware of potentially being seen as a threatening "interspecies stalker."
Shiver's flaws, weighed against one of the most engaging and emotionally involving reads I've had recently, are slight—a few slightly off images, a few careless details. Even the book itself is beautiful: a fantastic cover and a dark silver blue ink used for the text within. The latter is perfectly easy to read, and in fact only noticeable in good light, but it does subtly enhance the autumnal chill of the book. And finally it is a love story, as well as a romance; what is most moving about Sam and Grace's relationship is the simple, obvious liking they feel for each other, and their longing to have even a possibility of a future together. A line of John Donne's poem "The Good-Morrow" kept coming to me as I was thinking about Shiver: "love [ . . . ] makes one little room an everywhere." The "little room" of Mercy Falls and Boundary Wood is one I look forward to re-visiting often.