Do you remember that moment in the film version of The Princess Bride where the grandfather is trying to convince his stubborn grandson that the book he’s about to read is fantastic? He lures the kid in by saying the book contains, “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.” If I had a kid standing in front me right now looking at Splendors and Glooms with equal suspicion I would probably tell them that the book has a witch, an evil puppet master, transformations, a magical amulet, small dogs, orphans, lots of blood, and Yorkshire pudding. And just as the grandfather’s description fails to do The Princess Bride justice, so too does this description just wan and pale in the presence of Laura Amy Schlitz’s latest. This is a book infused with such a heady atmosphere that from page one on you are so thoroughly sucked into the story that the only way to get out is through.
The witch is dying. The girl is lonely. The children are hungry. Four people unconnected until the puppet master Grisini brings them, in a sense, together. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are orphans who have lived with the man for years, doing his puppet work with him, received almost nothing in return. When they perform for Clara Wintermute, a rich little girl who requests a performance for her birthday, they are unprepared when the next day policeman come around asking questions. Clara has disappeared and Grisini is under suspicion. When Grisini himself disappears, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall find something that makes Clara’s fate seem out of the ordinary. All the more so when they are summoned by a witch to a beautiful distant estate and everyone, even Grisini, is reunited once more for a final showdown.
As odd as it is to say, what this book reminded me of more than anything else was A.S. Byatt’s Angels & Insects. To be fair, I felt that way about Ms. Schlitz’s previous novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair too. Though written for adults, Byatt’s novel consists of two short stories, one of which concerns séances and a woman with multiple dead children in her past. Thoughts of that woman came to me as I read more about Clara’s story. At first glance a spoiled little rich girl, Clara is cursed in a sense to be the one child that survived a cholera epidemic that wiped out her siblings when she was quite young. Forced to honor them at her birthday (not to mention other times of the year) she is understandably less than in love with their figurative ghosts. Like Byatt, Schlitz taps so successfully into a time period’s mores that even as you wonder at their strangeness you understand their meaning. You may not agree with them, but you understand.
Where A Drowned Maiden’s Hair was a self-described melodrama, Splendors and Glooms is Victorian Gothic. It brings to mind the dirty streets of London and books by authors like Joan Aiken. In Lizzie Rose and Parsefall’s world you can get dirty just by walking through the yellow fog. Never mind what you encounter on the street. The first three chapters of the book are split between three different characters and you go down the class ladder, from upper-upperclass to kids who feed only when they can get away with it. It’s a distinctive period and Schlitz is a master and plunging you directly into that world. I am also happy to report that her ear for language is as pitch perfect as ever. She’s the only author for kids that I know of that can get away with sentences like, “Lizzie Rose corrected him, aspirating the h.”
At the same time no one acts the way you would expect them to. You walk into the novel thinking that orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall will be perfect little pseudo-siblings to one another and you’re repeatedly surprised when Parsefall rejects any and all affection from his devoted (if not doting) friend. In fact he’s a fascinating character in and of himself (and at times I almost had the sense that he knew himself to BE a character). He has only one love, one devotion, one obsession in this world and it’s difficult for anything else to make a dent in it. Likewise, when Lizzie Rose interacts with the witch you expect the standard tale where she melts the old woman’s heart against her will. Schlitz doesn’t go in for the expected, though. You will find no schmaltz within these pages. Though the characters’ expectations may line up with the readers’, beware of falling too in love with what somebody on the page wants. You might find your own heart breaking.
Even as a child I had a strange habit of falling in love with storytime’s villains. Captain Hook most notably, but others followed suit. That was part of what was so interesting about the villain Grisini in this book. By all logic I should have developed a crush on him of some sort. Yet Schlitz manages to make him wholly reprehensible and just kind of nasty to boot. He actually doesn’t appear in all that many pages of the book. When he does you are baffled by him. He’s not like a usual villain. He’s almost impotent, though his shadow is long. He also suffers more physically than any other bad guy I’ve encountered in a book for kids. If you’ve ever worried that a no goodnik wasn’t paying sufficiently for their crimes you shall have no such similar objections to Splendors and Glooms. The wages of sin are death and perhaps a bit of bloodletting as well.
I admit (and I’m ashamed to say so now) that when I first read this book I thought to myself, “Well that was delightful but I’m sure I’ll have a hard time persuading other folks to like it as much as I do.” Chalk that one up to my own snotty little assumptions. I’m sure the underlying thought was that I was clearly the right kind of reader and therefore my superior intellect was the whole reason I liked what I had read. Fortunately I was to find that I was nothing more than a snobby snob when it became clear that not only did other librarians love it (librarians who would normally eschew most forms of fantasy if they could possibly help it), kids were enjoying it too! As of this review there are twelve holds on my library’s print copies of Splendors and Glooms and six holds on our two ebook editions! So much for lowered expectations. It is exceedingly rare to find an author who hits it out of the park, so to speak, every single time she writes. Ms. Schlitz has written six published works for children and not one has been anything but remarkable. As adept at fairy stories as fairytales, at straight biographies or melodramatic ghost stories, at long last we see what she can do with a Dickensian setting. Result: She does wonders. Wonders and splendors with just a hint of gloom. The sole downside is sitting and waiting for her next book. If it’s half as good as this one, it’ll be worth the wait.
On shelves now.
Source: Finished copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente
- The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
- The Eyeball Collector by F.E. Higgins
- The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
First Sentence: “The witch burned.”
Notes on the Cover: Hands down brilliant. Bagram Ibatoulline (the artist behind it) spends so much time being sweet and meaningful that it’s almost a relief to watch him doing something adequately creepy. Be sure to spot that wonderful skeleton marionette on the back cover. Worth discovering, certainly.
I was also unaware of the British change to both the cover and the book’s very title:
- This book appears on New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2012.
- Read a sample chapter here.
- What are it’s Newbery chances? Heavy Medals has an opinion on the matter.