Goodreads: The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Series: The Forest of Hands and Teeth #1
Mary’s village lies in the middle of a forest encircled by a fence through which no one ever leaves. Outside, the Unconsecrated prowl, hungering for human flesh. Only the wisdom of the Sisterhood and the vigilance of the Guardians keeps the village safe. Most people believe things have always been this way. Mary’s mother, however, has told her stories of the ocean, stories of a world that used to be free. Mary wants to find that world, but the Sisterhood harbors secrets and they will do just about anything to keep those secrets safe.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth sounds like a zombie dystopia story. Mary lives in a village cut off from the rest of the world by a gate that also keeps the people safe from the undead whose bites and scratches will infect them, turning them into more zombies to wreak destruction upon their friends and family. An organization named the Sisterhood rules over the village, controlling the history, religion, and social mores they learn. The Sisterhood, however, knows more than they tell. Everything about the plot seems calculated to provide action, excitement, and suspense. Except it doesn’t.
Though the page count lies just about 300, The Forest of Hands and Teeth does not read like a full-length novel, but rather the introduction to one. Very little happens in terms of plot. As expected, Mary starts to question the values of the Sisterhood and discovers that they sometimes lie. As expected, (I really don’t consider this a spoiler), she finds her way out of the village. Not as expected, that’s it. The rest of the book is all Mary’s longings for the oceans and her love affair (highly physical) with a boy betrothed to another woman. Not just another woman. (This is a real spoiler. Highlight after the parentheses to read.) Her best friend.
I think I was supposed to find this forbidden affair not only romantic, but also noble and brave, an attempt to fight back against the village’s strict rules governing the place of everyone in society. (Men and women are expected to marry to raise families, not because they feel passion for one another.) Ryan inserts a lot of dialogue about the importance of love versus the expectation of commitment (as if love somehow is opposed to commitment and does not entail it). She also portrays duty as something ugly and twisted. The other characters’ dedication to doing what is good for the village rather than what they personally desire (an understandable sentiment in light of their belief that they are the last remnants of humanity about to be overrrun by zombies) makes them seem like zealots devoid of all emotion. In fact, when people talk about this duty, their personalities even change. People who seem sweet, caring, and maybe even admirable suddenly turn into psychotic terrors when they talk about duty. Perhaps Ryan wants to show that constantly denying one’s feelings is unhealthy, but she goes too far.
Despite the heavy-handed messages delivered by the book, however, I was not remotely enchanted by this love affair. By making out with a man engaged to another woman, Mary was deluding herself, hurting the other woman, and driving a wedge into that couple’s future marriage. She talks about love, but what she was doing seems a lot like lust. She is physically attracted to the guy, so they make out. She later admits that she does not even know much about him–what he likes and dislikes, his hopes and his fears. She was just using his body to make herself feel better when she felt rejected by the rest of the village.
Mary’s own hopes and dreams are also apparently supposed to make her likable, but they too make her seem selfish. All she ever does is think about the ocean. She’s obsessed. She thinks it exists and she wants to go there, no matter what it costs. She is willing to leave friends and family behind if she has to. She is willing to sacrifice them to the Unconsecrated if she has to. This all seems very unreasonable. Unlike in other dystopias where the government is hiding something, the Sisterhood so far seems fairly innocuous. Yes, they have secret rooms and stuff and have not revealed their whole history to the village, but the fact remains that the outside world is actually overrun by zombies who will relentlessly pursue you to feast on your flesh. The Sisterhood has not lied about that. So why Mary thinks that the ocean is still a zombie-free paradise that she can skip on over to if she can just get past the fence remains a mystery.
Frankly, I do not understand why this book became a bestseller. The promises the plot makes about zombies and secrets all fall through. The romance is not romantic and the protagonist is not likable. The other characters are likable on occasion, but their personalities tend to change to fit the necessities of the plot. If I read the second book at all, it will only be to find out if the Sisterhood actually did have some deep, horrible secret and why the zombie apocalypse started in the first place.