Monday, February 13, 2023

"The Whalebone Theater" by Joanna Quinn - Book Review and Discussion

Interested in historical fiction with a dose of coming of age, also how about some spies?! Looking for your next big chunk of a book? Keep reading to check out my review of "The Whalebone Theater" by Joanna Quinn.


The Whalebone Theatre

by Joanna Quinn

My Rating: ★★★★/ 5 stars

goodreads // amazon // library 

One blustery night in 1928, a whale washes up on the shores of the English Channel. By law, it belongs to the King, but twelve-year-old orphan Cristabel Seagrave has other plans. She and the rest of the household—her sister, Flossie; her brother, Digby, long-awaited heir to Chilcombe manor; Maudie Kitcat, kitchen maid; Taras, visiting artist—build a theatre from the beast’s skeletal rib cage. Within the Whalebone Theatre, Cristabel can escape her feckless stepparents and brisk governesses, and her imagination comes to life.

As Cristabel grows into a headstrong young woman, World War II rears its head. She and Digby become British secret agents on separate missions in Nazi-occupied France—a more dangerous kind of playacting, it turns out, and one that threatens to tear the family apart. ( from



"The Whalebone Theatre" by Joanna Quinn

Book Review and Discussion


What Worked

Immersive, epic story Yes, brace yourself, because this book is long ( 576 pages!!). Most of this novel is jam-packed with characters and plot so it didn't feel long for me, until the very end. In fact, so much happened with the rotating cast of main characters, especially in the first half, that looking back it's wild to think that this was all just one book! 


Reminds me of other favorites "The Whalebone Theater" reminded me of two other favorites "The Heart's Invisible Furies' by John Boyne and also "The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah. It's definitely grittier than "The Nightingale" but the spy elements were familiar, as well as the story of sisters living different lives, separate but also together during WWII. The length of the book, paired with the main characters being out of place, emotionally complicated, and quirky children with inattentive parents, and also that the story follows much of their whole lives, definitely gave me "The Heart's Invisible Furies" vibes. 


Just great writing, so so good Despite how much is going on during "The Whalebone Theatre" all of the characters are well-developed and strong. This is a multi-point-of-view historical fiction. Typically, I would have a favorite character and resist the POV change, but I think each of the character's stories is equally engaging.  For most of the book, the pacing was perfect as well. Nothing felt rushed. I absolutely loved the characters in this book. Instead of being glad that I had shifted to a new character and their subplot, I just missed the characters being all together and their group interactions. They each felt like very real people to me, and also the secondary characters as well!


SO many creative storytelling methods in the book Talented writers are in their own class when it comes to creative storytelling and Joanna is certainly one. She cleverly uses different storytelling methods in order to keep the plot moving, such as when a large amount of time elapses and she uses dated newspaper clippings about the children's plays to show the passing of time. Joanna Quinn also uses different sizes of the font and the placement of words to tell the story, much like in poetry. The novel is also epistolary as much of the story is told through letters between the siblings. This book has so much to offer and checks a lot of different reader boxes.


What Didn't Work 

While I loved almost everything about "The Whalebone Theater", the last quarter of this book really dragged out for me. That lull took this book's rating for me from five to four stars. The author's depictions of being a spy in WWII are probably very accurate but made for exceptionally slow storytelling. I imagine it would be easy to fall into a James Bond-eqsue action sequence to keep the plot moving and the reader engaged, and I'm glad she resisted that. However, the ending felt very drawn out and unrewarding as we were stuck with the same character for over one hundred pages, and not much happened in that time. Which was particularly discouraging after such great pacing and storytelling at the start of the novel! Regardless, I really enjoyed this book and will absolutely pick up this author's next novel.


Have you read "The Whalebone Theatre" by Joanna Quinn?  Let me know your thoughts about the book below! Either way, comment with your favorite historical fiction novel. It is one of my favorite genres and I would love to add your suggestions to my TBR. Thanks for reading, readers!


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  1. I just finished reading the whalebone theater. I love historical fiction and this was an excellent novel. I am frantically looking back to see if I missed some thing. What happened to Sophie?

    1. I think we can safely assume she ended up in a death camp and was murdered there before the camps were liberated. Digby talks briefly that there are rumours of camps that are not normal POW or work camps. The women who debriefs Cristabelle also hints at the same, that the prisoners were not where they thought they’d be. I believe when Hitler knew it was over, he issued the command to kill everyone, all prisoners.

  2. I wondered about Sophie’s son ? Why Christabel didn’t seek him out, just to deliver his mother’s message… so many other ends were tied up nicely!


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