The Turning by Francine Prose

I don’t recall where I saw this book advertised online, but I didn’t realize it was categorized as a young adult novel until I was asking for it at the bookstore. The blurb I’d read made it sound creepy and the cover looks somewhat creepy in a Harry Potteresque kind of way, so I bought it. I haven’t read any fiction by Francine Prose, but I enjoy her book, Reading Like a Writer. And it is October, time for creepy reads.

The Turning tells the story of Jack, a teen who accepts a summer job living on an isolated island taking care of two kids, Miles and Flora. Jack got the job through his girlfriend’s father, a father who supposedly wants Jack away from his daughter. Jack needs to raise money to attend the same college as his girlfriend. Miles and Flora were orphaned when their parents were killed in a train crash in India and are now provided for by their rich uncle who wants nothing to do with them. There’s a cook, Linda, who lives year round with the kids who has become a stand-in mother. Linda’s husband died on the island. Other people have died on the island as well. There’s lots of rumors about bad happenings on the island and in the house. Is the house haunted? What’s up with all the significant glances between Miles and Flora? Is Jack seeing people or ghosts? Is his girlfriend cheating on him with her ex? Jack’s mind starts to spin.

The story is told through letters written mainly by Jack to his girlfriend and a few to his father. There are some return letters to Jack from the girlfriend and father. This framework doesn’t work very convincingly. Epistolary novels are hard to pull off and while Jack sounds like a teenager some of the time, I just don’t buy that these are letters he’s written–they’re much too safe, consistent, and prosy to have been written by a living person, let alone a teen adventurous enough to accept such a job.

And the letters from the girlfriend and father are so obviously designed to move the plot along. Here’s an example from the father:

Dear Jack,    
     I’m glad to hear you’re doing so well and have adjusted to the island and that you’re even having fun. It’s hard to believe that three weeks have passed since you left. Sometimes it seems like five minutes, and sometimes like five months. I miss you–even the loud music and the video games and all the stuff I used to complain about.
     You know, Jack, something happened yesterday at work. I can’t remember if I told you I got a couple of weeks of cabinet work in a house that this doctor from Boston is renovating. My friend Russ is doing the painting. I hadn’t seen Russ for a while, and he asked how you were. I told him about your job on the island. . . . He got a strange look on his face and said he remembered reading about something strange that happened there, something nasty. Or maybe it was something that happened to some people from there. He thought maybe even a murder or a double murder. . . . I had to quit working for a minute and take a deep breath.
     Russ always gets things wrong. He probably meant some other island completely. I figured you’d have heard about it now, if there was anything . . . which I’m sure there isn’t.
     Anyhow, keep having fun. Say hello to the kids for me, even though I’ve never met them. Likewise Linda. I’m sure I’d like her as much as you say I would.
     Your dad  (132-133)

Really? What dad would write something like that?

Leaving the epistolary problems behind, the book is simply flat. It has some curves and turns that seem promising that never develop into anything substantial. And it’s also not very creepy, at least not for a young adult novel. I actually thought it read more like a book for middle schoolers. Then again, creepy reading when I was a teen was Stephen King, so perhaps I’m just skewed.

I’d recommend The Turning to middle schoolers and young teens who haven’t read much creepy stuff. If they like this, there’s certainly more out there to keep them reading. Speaking of which, I’m told The Turning is a retelling of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which I thought I had read, but apparently have not, so I’ve added it to my own TBR list.

The Turning
Francine Prose
HarperTeen, 2012
Source: bought it from the Unabridged Bookstore


  1. It sounds like the book would have been more interesting/convincing if she hadn't gone with the epistolary style, because the plot itself sounds super interesting and spooOOooky! 😉

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