Tag Archives: 1890s

Book Review: The Art of the Con: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair Magically Maintains My Interest

Standard

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excepts, videos, downloads, and author's bio.

Spoilers.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama is a historical fiction with elements of magical realism by Laura Amy Schlitz and is outside of my usually indulged fantasy genre.  I bought it for a graduate course, quit the class, then read and finished the book despite.  That in itself is a pretty good review.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is written from the point of view of Maud Flynn, an orphan adopted by three spinster sisters, the Hawthornes, who hold séances for rich patrons to maintain their lifestyle.  Maud lives as a “secret child” with the sisters and is asked to take part in their séances, acting the role of one particular child, Caroline Lambert.  Sneaking out the house, Maud meets Mrs. Lambert, Caroline’s grieving mother, whom she begins to like despite herself, and whom she begins to feel guilty for conning.

During a séance, an accidental fire destroys the Hawthorne’ house.  The Hawthornes and Mrs. Lambert flee, leaving Maud locked in a cabinet behind.  Maud escapes and stumbles away from the burning house, and in exchange for her honesty, is helped by the owner of a carousel that both Caroline and now Maud have become fond of riding.

At first Mrs. Lambert despises Maud along with the sisters who have conned her but Mrs. Lambert comes to realize that Maud has reminded her of her daughter, Caroline, and Mrs. Lambert forgives Maud and offers Maud the loving home that she has so desperately wanted.

This is the external plot, but its morals are of discerning truth and untruth and appearances from reality; the true plot is Maud’s confusion about whom to trust and whom to distrust and what to keep secret and what to reveal.  Perhaps as a result, the adults in the tale who are manipulating or using Maud seem significantly more interesting than Maud herself, and Maud, though she acts and acts against the orders of the adults in charge of her, seems more catalyst for their reactions and a foggy lens for the reader than she does a heroine who acts throughout the story.  Though she was nice enough, Maud didn’t leave that much of an impression upon me, and I think that I remained with her to see whether or not Mrs. Lambert would be tricked and then to ensure that the sisters got their comeuppance.

The class for which this book was an assignment is called Giving Voice to the Voiceless.  Maud is forced by the Hawthorne sisters to maintain her silence and hide her identity, not through fear of physical violence as with Sarah Byrnes in Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes but through fear of rejection, out of a belief that by behaving and doing all that the sisters tell her to do Maud can win love.  Maud’s voicelessness is what the Hawthornes require and desire, and it is a boon to them.  Her voicelessness hurts Mrs. Lambert.  Whether or not it is a boon or harm to Maud is difficult to say without a lengthy discussion.  Her singing voice first wins her the Hawthornes’ attention and they take her away from the orphanage where she’s been living.  Her voicelessness ensures her continued situation with the Hawthornes, where she is provided with better food and more elegant clothes than she has ever been allowed and more personal attention, though whether she is more genuinely loved by the orphanage’s staff than by the Hawthornes is again up for debate.  By remaining voiceless as the Hawthornes implore her to be, Maud distances Mrs. Lambert, who could provide her with an even better living situation and genuine love in addition.

Along with Maud’s enforced voicelessness, the Hawthornes employ a mute servant, whom they call Muffet.  Maud befriends Muffet and begins to teach her the words for objects and later to read.  Muffet and Maud together make the journey from voicelessness into a voiced and into a loving home.  Schlitz seems to be very firmly of the opinion that voice and truth and honesty are virtues.

Maud’s is a supremely innocent close third voice, but I think I’d have liked her better if more of her impertinence had come forward in her voice as well as in her dialogue rather than being most prominently displayed in the labels of adults.

***1/2

Schlitz, Laura Amy.  A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Laura Amy Schlitz or Candlewick Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Mighty Rivers of The Golem and the Jinni

Standard

Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is at once easy and terribly difficult to describe.  It fits into many genres and so can be easily classified, but the combination of these genres sets it among few fellows, and its style is something new for me as well.

When people have asked me what I’ve been reading, I’ve replied that it is an adult historical urban low fantasy about two mythological creatures trying to cope with living as humans in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  There: easily reduced into a single sentence, but what a sentence to unpack.

The Golem and the Jinni is more slowly paced than many of the books that I typically read, and that was somewhat difficult for me.  A lot of this slower pace comes from the construction of its plot.  I have very much struggled with how to describe this construction, and my best attempt thus far is to compare it to a river being fed by tributaries.  Wecker shows us glimpses of the tributaries, separate entities, and then these tributaries will meet and the story will build in power and depth.  There are, I would argue, three main tributaries to the story: that of the Jinni, that of the Golem, and that of the Mahmoud Saleh.  Creeks feed into these tributaries:  Heiress Sophia Winston’s, the young boy Matthew’s, tinsmith Arbeely’s, Bedouin Fadwa al-Hadad’s all feed into the Jinni’s story.  The stories of a retired rabbi; his atheist nephew Michael Levy; and loose Anna all feed into the Golem’s.  Saleh’s storyline is fairly isolated as is Saleh.  The river itself has a source.  This source is yet another storyline.  It begins as a weak storyline, but it is ultimately the one to which all the others are bound, the one which influences them all.

Yes.  That was somewhat cryptic.  It is difficult to explain, and more so when I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

In retrospect, I respect and am impressed by the rivers of the story’s construction too, however much I found it slow before the two of the main tributary characters met around page 175.

Within these many storyline churn as many themes and questions.  Wecker uses her characters to explore the ideas of independence and freedom and enslavement, nature versus nurture, humanity, free will, belief, religion, magic, reality, living in the past and living in the future and living in the present, friendship, love, honesty and concealment, prejudice, mortality and immortality, the power and danger of knowledge….  Some of these she obviously covers in more detail than others, but she touches upon them all.

Ultimately, the story takes on a romantic element.  It was a quiet and natural romance.

The climax was both satisfying and thrilling.  I loved the ending!

I was trying to read many books simultaneously with The Golem and the Jinni, but The Golem and the Jinni was the first to grab and hold me.  By page 200, The Golem and the Jinni was providing me with the reading that I’d apparently been missing from the others, with the transportation to another realm that reading in any form ought to provide.

****

Wecker, Helene.  The Golem and the Jinni.  New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Helene Wecker or HarperCollins.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.  The review is of an advanced reader’s edition sent to Barnes & Noble by the publisher.