A Cactus in the Valley by Olivia J. Bennet is the first self-published work other than my own that I’ve had the pleasure to read. So I can most certainly say that this was quite a treat from the beginning. I found this novel fresh and impacting, two qualities I try to write in my own work. Thank you, Olivia, for this story.
At the end of the day, I gave this book 3.5 stars, because while I enjoyed the first half, I found the second somewhat lacking. This rating means I liked the novel but found some issues with it. Of course, it is all based on my own reading preferences so some of my issues with it might be what will make other readers fall in love with the story more than I have.
A Cactus in the Valley from Goodreads:
When withdrawn Terra Lombardi wakes up in a smoking airplane in the middle of the remote Arizona desert, she realizes the only other survivor is the arrogant Wyatt Hartman. Clouded with the uncertainty of how they crashed, the two strangers head west, in pursuit of civilization. Amidst the environment and dangerous animals against them, they must band together to survive, and even thrive in the rocky, sun-drenched Southwest. However, the elements force them to confront their inner demons. Told through dual points-of-view and intermittent flashbacks, teenagers Wyatt and Terra brave the sun and sand alone. But it is through the hardest times in which we grow the most.
The prose of this novel was undeniably distinct and new. It was beautiful and heartbreakingly descriptive. I could see and feel everything the characters were experiencing. I usually find “isolation/survival” novels lacking in this aspect. I find that the descriptions are for full of information that do hardly anything to make me feel or to make me present in the story. Olivia’s writing style is nothing like this. The setting of this story is very much its own character. It is rare that I read a book where the setting is not only important but also informs the plot and characters to a degree that requires a steady writing hand which Bennet certainly had. The opening scene with the plane was especially emotionally jarring and well-written. Olivia is truly a word-shaker.
The plot in hindsight didn’t really have a lot to it. The setting and the characters really drove this story for me. With that said, what did happen seemed reasonable and not thrown in for the sake of mere convenience which I appreciate. However, there were some instances in which action sprang upon the characters too suddenly for my taste. Of course, it was realistic in the sense that things did spring very suddenly on the characters (that’s just how it goes), but sometimes I felt there were scenes that could have benefitted from some leadup such as the characters considering the consequences of being next to the high ledge before someone falls etc.
My main issue with the book lies in the characters themselves. I find myself quite conflicted because I liked both Terra and Wyatt A LOT and was rooting for them throughout the story. I found each of their voices distinct and compelling. In most duel pov books I read, I find this lacking. Bennet excelled in this aspect. But by the latter part of the story, I found their actions rather immature (despite their age a trauma) and rather sudden due to the fact that we hardly ever hear their thoughts. Their pov’s become stagnant with clipped actions. Which, while it worked with the continual actions of survival, their relationship seemed forced as a result. We hear Terra complaining about Wyatt being an arrogant ass but she never says or indicates why. Wyatt complains that Terra is too reserved and snappish but also never explains why. This caused me to feel disconnected from them. I enjoyed them each as individuals, but as a couple and in their interactions, I couldn’t understand or connect with them.
The religious aspects of the story in the epilogue seemed to come out of nowhere. God isn’t really mentioned at all until the very end when suddenly a character is claiming that their experiences in the desert as changed them Spiritually for the better. And while the passage of time between the end of the story and the epilogue could explain this, the fact that neither one of the main characters said anything about God before this, made the epilogue seem jarring and out of character. Despite this, I found the words in the epilogue strong and truthful. They were impactful and encouraging. And we find out the meaning of the title and it’s beautiful.
I also did not realize how mature some of the content in this book was. It is not something that bothers me (maybe the language a bit) but it might be something other readers would want to know before reading it. The violence is plentiful and descriptions somewhat gory, but it’s all realistic and not done unnecessarily so. I could have done with less language, but it was written realistically as well. The sexual content included talk and brief, vague descriptions of rape and some kissing.
Again, I’m not against the mature content. I appreciate that Bennet does not back down from hard topics and hard situations. Bring on the angst! Bring on the truth! If you like either one, this is definitely the book for you! Since I am reading this book 2 years after its publication, I can assume that Bennet has come a long way in her writing style. (I know I have in two years.) So I am more than excited to read what she creates next!