Book Review: The Wishing Game by Meg Shaffer

book review the wishing game meg shaffer

Title: The Wishing Game

Author: Meg Shaffer

Publisher: Ballantine

Publication date: May 30, 2023

Genre: Women’s Fiction

One Sentence Summary: When Lucy gets the chance to be in the running to receive the sole copy of the next book in a children’s series, she sees the chance to make her dreams, and those of the orphaned boy she hopes to adopt, come true.

the wishing game meg shaffer

In all honesty, the one sentence summary I gave cannot do this book justice. It’s a beautiful, soft, magical story that drew inspiration from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory crossed with a reality show, but without all the cameras.

It starts with Lucy, a teacher’s aide who wants nothing more than to adopt a young boy who was tragically orphaned and who has become very attached to her. Everyone around her is supportive, except his case worker who knows Lucy does not have the financial means to adopt him.

But, before we can get to Lucy, we have to meet Hugo, the long time illustrator for a children’s book series that abruptly ended years before when the author, one Jack Masterson, shut himself up on his island, dubbed Clock Island after the island of the same name in his book series. Hugo is hugely protective of Jack, living on the island with him and keeping him alive, even as Jack treats him more like a son, and to more puzzles and riddles than Hugo would care for.

And it all starts with Jack, who has, for some mysterious reason, been brought back to life, returning to his writing room where he completes the next novel in his series. And he hides it beneath puzzles and riddles and clues, promising it to one of five entities.

There’s a game afoot, a puzzling and marvelous game that brings four adults together for the first time. They each have pain in their past, and a special meeting with Jack himself when they were children. Jack thinks of them with a great deal of fondness, so invites them to his island for several rounds of games and puzzles, and the winner will walk away with the sole copy of his novel. And, if they all fail, the publisher gains all rights.

But there’s more than just a manuscript up for grabs.

There’s something incredibly soft and magical about this book where the nostalgia factor is high, especially for readers who had those beloved childhood books. It’s heartwarming in the best possible way, even if I was teary eyed nearly every time I picked up this book, because it struck my heart so strongly. I couldn’t possibly capture how beautiful and magical I found this book. There are probably flaws, but I am blind to them. They do not and cannot exist to me. Except the parallels to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came off a little stronger at times than I would want.

The heart of this book is Clock Island. It’s the foundation for the children’s series, it’s the home these four once children would have loved to actually call home, it’s the place where they’re called back to for an incredible competition, it’s the place they explore and can recall favorite memories from the books. Nancy Drew‘s River Heights was my mental playground; I can only imagine how Lucy and her fellow competitors must have felt to have the run of Clock Island. This island really is kind of shaped like a clock, with really fun names for different locations that lie where the numbers on a clock would. It’s whimsical in a child-like way, but not so childish that an adult wouldn’t understand and be tickled by it. Jack has one rule: to never break the spell, and he really does stick to that. Even though I was only reading this book, I felt like I was stepping into a spell, into a magical world. It made me wish this children’s series was real.

If the island is the heart, the characters are the heartbeat. They make the island pulse with magic and throw out tendrils to very carefully wrap around the real world. They’re all broken in some way, Lucy, Hugo, Jack, and little Christopher. They’ve been hurt by people they loved, and lost people they loved. They felt very much like pieces of a family, broken individually but whole together. I loved Lucy. Even if she felt a little too good, a little too kind, and a little too perfect, she was absolutely perfect for this story, and she couldn’t have been any other way. Personally, I really resonated with her, so of course I adored her and her story. Hugo was a bit of a tough nut to crack, but he has his reasons. I loved the relationship he has with Jack, and the one he develops with Lucy. It was fantastic to watch his heart fall into place. Jack often felt nuts, but in the best possible way. He reminded me of a sprightly grandfather, the one with a twinkle in his eye and a riddle ready and candy in his pocket. But he had a soft, tender heart that could break so easily. And Christopher, the little boy who tragically lost his parents and whose future is on the line. My heart just wept for him, for him and Lucy. And I sobbed when I got to the end of their story because it was just perfection.

The Wishing Game is much more than just an island and a group of characters carrying hurts that cut deep. It’s a nostalgia-inducing story full of healing and piecing together a family. The end can be seen a mile away, but the joy in this book is how they get there, because it’s really beautiful. But it’s also full of puzzles and games. The reader isn’t privy to all of them, and, indeed, many are just games children would play, which brought back a lot of fun memories for me of family game nights. Then there are the puzzles the reader is given a good look at, and the opportunity to solve them along with the characters. I loved that first puzzle, even if it took me a bit to figure it out. It was a delightful introduction to both the competition and Jack. It was fun, but definitely could be frustrating.

If there was one thing I wasn’t a huge fan of, it was how reminiscent it is of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (saw the movie, never got around to reading the book). Sometimes it was hard to not see that story in this one, but then something special to The Wishing Game would come into play, and all I saw was The Wishing Game. Because there are a lot of wishes made, wishes that may or may not actually come true, and a game is definitely played. It was fun to see these adults have to learn to remember to be like a child, and it made me sad when some of the adults just couldn’t. Children grow up, and I felt like this story gave a glimpse into what that might be like.

I’ll say it again: The Wishing Game is soft and beautiful and magical without actually being magical. It’s not the type of story to hit a reader over the head, nor does it put the characters into knots while it makes them bleed. Clock Island becomes a place for healing and putting back together, and, honestly, everyone could use a Jack in their lives. Hurts and pains are soothed, relationships are mended and created, and hearts can live in peace. I loved everything about this book and, even though I read this a month ago, it still has a stranglehold on my heart. I was glued to this book from the first page, and happily fell into it every time I picked it up, even though it made me cry an awful amount.

How many cups of tea will you need?

5 cups, plus a box of tissue

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

Head over to the Bookshelf to check out my reviews of books from the Big 5 and self-published, indie, and small press books.

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