When I first read about The Warlow Experiment, it seemed like it was going to be right up my alley. It’s a historical psychological thriller, which are a few of my favorite things to read. I was very excited to pick it up – it even made it into my Most Anticipated Books post. And it’s been a while since I’ve been so disappointed by a book.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
(From Goodreads) Herbert Powyss lives in an estate in the Welsh Marches, with enough time and income to pursue a gentleman’s fashionable investigations and experiments in botany. But he longs to make his mark in the field of science–something consequential enough to present to the Royal Society in London. He hits on a radical experiment in isolation: For seven years a subject will inhabit three rooms in the basement of the manor house, fitted out with rugs, books, paintings, and even a chamber organ. Meals will arrive thrice daily via a dumbwaiter. The solitude will be totally unrelieved by any social contact whatsoever; the subject will keep a diary of his daily thoughts and actions. The pay: fifty pounds per annum, for life.
Only one man is desperate to apply for the job: John Warlow, a semi-literate laborer with a wife and six children to provide for. The experiment, a classic Enlightenment exercise gone more than a little mad, will have unforeseen consequences for all included.
The Warlow Experiment has a lot going for it. The story was incredibly interesting – especially since it is (loosely) based on a true story. After reading the synopsis, I was definitely curious about how it would go. Unfortunately, I almost immediately didn’t like this book. The first thing that stood out to me – in a bad way – was the character of John Warlow. I get that he’s supposed to be illiterate, but the author makes him sound like he’s a caveman or a child. It really rubbed me the wrong way, and I honestly felt that the story would have been so much stronger had John been portrayed as intelligent, even if he couldn’t read or write. As it is, it felt almost like abuse. I came very close to DNFing this, but my stubbornness won out.
And it wasn’t an exception, because I hated pretty much every single character. They all had serious flaws, which would be fine, except they felt like cliches instead of actual human beings. I felt like I had read characters exactly like these, only better. I want my characters to have dimension and feel like real people, and none of these did. They just really came off as very two-dimensional, which make it extremely hard for me to get invested in the story. Honestly, if every single one of them had died at the end, I wouldn’t have been upset. This book starts off slowly, and by the time the action finally picks up, I was ready for it to be over.
I especially disliked how the female characters were portrayed. Now, I know this is a historical novel and women didn’t have a lot of power in society. But that is absolutely no excuse to have weak female characters who are basically just there to further the men’s plot and endure abuse. I couldn’t stand the way they were talked to and treated. No joke, my first thought when I turned the last page was “well, that was obviously written by a man”. Imagine my surprise when I found out Alix Nathan is a woman. It made me even more uncomfortable about how the female characters are treated in this book. Seriously, not cool. And a total missed opportunity to have some strong female characters, which would have definitely made me like this book more.
I think the thing that bothered me the most about The Warlow Experiment is that the part I liked – essentially the bare bones plot – was the only part that is based on a true story. The author took something that could have been really intriguing and took it to a place I really didn’t like. This could have been so good. Which makes it all the more disappointing that I ended up genuinely disliking this book.
★☆☆☆☆ – If you take out the true story – which honestly came from a one-paragraph article – I disliked everything about The Warlow Experiment. I’m definitely disappointed. And I would really like to see someone else take this story on, because I think it could be done so well.
This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
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