The first two thirds or so of this book are amazing. There’s a magic in them, like the moments of magic in “A Little Princess.” There’s beauty in the moors, there’s the captivating idea of a garden whose door is hidden, rusted shut. And I’m a sucker for Gothic manors with mysterious crying echoing through the halls by night.
Mary, the original protagonist, is everything you could want that Sara Crewe was not. Mary is flawed–deeply so. She’s scarred, and she shows those scars. She’s a child who lived without love, and that changes the way she views the world. But, slowly, she changes. She grows.
It is, truly, a magical book. Up until a point between the 2/3 and 3/4 mark where it goes off the rails. Then it’s just terrible. It becomes super moralistic as the protagonist role shifts from Mary to an annoying little boy.
It’s also really hard to enjoy a children’s book after it pins domestic abuse on the wife. There’s a bit near the end where an old man says to this boy (whose identity I won’t spoil) that a woman in town yelled at her husband, then he beat her and went off to get drunk. The boy tells the old man that, to fix it, he’d recommend telling the wife to be nicer to her husband. That’s a digression from the main story, but it’s still horrific from the perspective of “it’s not the fault of the woman who was beaten” that people (sometimes) recognize now.
Quite apart from digressions into victim-blaming, the book is just plain boring by the end. The boy character is just the goody-two-shoes without development or complication, Mary’s role in the narrative evaporates, and the whole book shudders to a long overdue halt.