Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 2012. Currently Available.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Gothic Novel
Face Value: This cover is exquisite. First, the dark colors and brooding artwork perfectly capture the gothic tone of the story. Then, when you look closer, you see the rich fabric of the curtain, and you realize that the two children are actually marionettes. Look up and see the imposing giant hand manipulating their strings. Flip the cover over and see the strung skeleton puppet glancing askew back at you, suggesting something forboding to come. It’s beautiful, tonally appropriate and incredibly creepy. In short, I loved it.
Does it Break the Slate? Yes! This book features three fantastic young protagonists, two girls, all of which are awesome in their own way. From a Slatebreaking point of view, both Clara and Lizzie Rose are young women who are determined to stand up for their own rights, regardless of societal implications for women at the time. In addition to dynamic girl heroes, Splendors and Glooms also pushes its young protagonists to grapple with big picture ideas of class, ethics and power.
Who would we give it to? Here we have another book for the lovers of Victorian orphan fiction! I know I’m not the only one out there. Seriously, if you loved The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and everything like it, this is the book for you.
Review: Let me start by saying that I am particularly disposed to love this kind of book. Magic, London, orphans, theatre, adventure – this novel hit a lot of my immediate cues for books I want to read. And even better – it’s really, really well written. The plot is as follows: Clara Wintermute the only surviving Wintermute child after a childhood cholera outbreak has begged and pleaded to have Grisini’s puppet theatre perform at her birthday party. Her secret plan is to have tea with Grisini’s young assistants, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, before the performance. But the evening after the performance, Clara disappears. And when Lizzie Rose and Parsefall start to investigate Grisini’s past and how he might be connected to Clara, all three children become wrapped up in a dangerous, magical trap.
This book is deliciously creepy. Just like in the Newbery-winning Good Masters, Sweet Ladies or A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, Schlitz is a master of setting the tone, a way that goes deeper than historical content. We are instantly brought into the whole world of London, both Clara’s privileged solitude and Lizzie Rose and Parsefall’s struggle to get by. The historical content is so thoroughly detailed that all of the magic makes perfect sense – it’s just as rooted in the reality of the world that’s been created for the reader.
The world of the theatre and the puppet stage is richly crafted. Performance is a consistent throughline in Schlitz’s work, and she clearly knows what she’s talking about. The whole book is theatrical in nature, both in the featuring of the puppet stage, and in the overarching style of the book.
Thematically though, this is a book about desire: the things that we want that define us and drive us to be the people we are. All of these characters – both heroes and villains – struggle with the things they want and the things they can never have. This theme is one of the most Slatebreaking elements of the book in my opinion. Yes, our girls are heroes, and that shouldn’t be discounted. But this idea – that women are entitled to wish for things and that desire is a powerful driving force – is important. Clara deserved to be heard, and loved apart from the grief of losing her siblings. Lizzie Rose deserves to be safe and secure. Through the things they want and the way they go about pursuing them, each of the three children is defined as the complex characters we see come off the page. It is through these deep desires that they are ultimately able to “save the day” in the end.
This is a magical book, that captures an old fashioned gothic feel while telling a totally original story. It’s one that I loved reading as an adult, but even more so can imagine how much I would have loved it as a child.
Reviewed from copy purchased at Changing Hands Bookstore