Co-Review: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair

h1 February 20th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

{Big ‘Ol Friendly Warning: Spoilers included. As usual, our co-reviews are really more well-suited to folks who have already read the novel and want to think further on it and, we hope, join in the conversation via the comments function} . . .

Jules: We’re beginning this co-review of Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair on the same day the Cybil winners are being announced. And — after reading the blurb about Schlitz’s title, which won the Middle Grade Fiction category — I’m feeling a bit daunted about reviewing now. I mean, just look at this great write-up:

“It’s a mystery story, it’s a ghost story, it’s delightfully gothic and eerie. In A Drowned Maiden’s Hair we have a protagonist with a very authentic child voice, and her motivations and feelings are described in clean, nuanced lines. Maud is also a person of her time and place; she never comes off as anachronistic. The story, too, is something of a time and place — the darkness of the Hawthorne estate was like an L.M. Montgomery novel gone delightfully to seed. The adoption of the plucky orphan by the wealthy lady is a trope of the Victorian novel, and yet does not come off as trite or formulaic. It is as if Schlitz had taken familiar characters and plotlines from Victorian fiction and injected them with a realism and emotional force that transcends its familiarity, making it seem new again. Truth — be it in the cries of a widower, or in a tearful confession — is what lets Maud see her true role and path, and ultimately brings redemption.”

Very nice.

I know that Eisha and I both found the novel unputdownable. I found it to be wholly original and suspenseful in a thrilling and addictive way. And I marvel at the sub-title Schlitz chose for the book: “A Melodrama.” The above Cybils blurb really hints at the fact that the plot has a melodramatic curve, if you will, to it. But, since melodramas typically emphasize plot at the expense of characterization, I find this interesting. Maud was one of the most vividly-drawn characters I’d read in a long time.

And how about that opening line, Eisha? “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'” Memorable, eh?

eisha: Yes, it’s a fabulous opening line. Wasn’t there a “Best Opening Lines of Children’s Literature” thingy on someone else’s blog a while back? Or am I making that up? Well, if there wasn’t, we should start one, and put this one on it.

And I completely agree with you about the strength of the characters in this “melodrama.” Maud is absolutely fabulous — believably tough and vulnerable at the same time. But the character that impressed me the most was Hyacinth. She’s such a great villain, because she’s so subtle and charismatic and authentic. The way Schlitz depicts her is so vivid, you can really see and hear her, and understand why Maud and everyone else is so captivated. And she doesn’t act like a villain, you know — she’s not consciously, obviously evil, just selfish and self-absorbed.

I thought it was interesting how the SLJ review called the plot, and particularly the ending, “predictable.” I figured it would end happily with Maud finding a real home, but I didn’t know with whom. I was surprised that we didn’t hear from Victoria again, though — I really liked her too, and thought her conflicted conscience provided such a nice counterpoint to Hyacinth. What about you — did you find the ending satisfying, or predictable?

jules: First things first, I found out that Brooke at The Brookeshelf wrote that obscenely perfect blurb of the novel for the Cybils site. Must give truly madly mad props where truly madly mad props are due. Okay, onward . . .

Well, maybe not so much onward, because in answering your question about whether or not I found the ending predictable, I must reference Brooke’s great blurb again: “The adoption of the plucky orphan by the wealthy lady is a trope of the Victorian novel, and yet does not come off as trite or formulaic.” Yes, I found it predictable in that I fully expected — in the very, very end — for Maud to end up with Mrs. Lambert, but it also was not so tidy that it didn’t make sense (melodramas, as a dramatic form, are not supposed to observe the laws of cause and effect, another way in which Schlitz flies in the face of the traditional form). And, as Brooke points out, it is also rather expected in a Victorian-era novel. So, hmmmm . . . I’d really like to pick Schlitz’s brain (let’s have her over for our Fantasy Author Wine/Coffee Soiree . . . wait, I think Fuse requested her, so we can kindly ask Fuse if we may tag along — or at least show up fashionably late in order to give them time to chat, but we can bring along another bottle of wine). I’d love to know precisely why she did tag on that sub-title. Perhaps it’s because characters in melodramas are supposed to exhibit exaggerated emotions and the plot is often sensational. There were most certainly some heavy emotions, and I didn’t find it sensational, but perhaps one could argue that the novel’s terrific spookiness (and the elderly sisters’ activities that make it thus) could be interpreted as rather sensational.

Oh, help, Eisha. How do you think the melodrama plays in? (And I’m in no way criticizing . . . I, frankly, do not think I have one, single criticism of this novel. I was just immediately intrigued by her addition of “A Melodrama” and am trying to work out how it plays in/why exactly she chose to do that, though now I just sound obsessed).

And, yes, Hyacinth was so well-drawn — even creepily so (did you notice that Fuse named her Runner-Up for Best Villain of the Year in last year’s Golden Fuse Awards? I’d even respectfully argue that Hyacinth was more villainous than Stephen Rose in David Almond’s wonderful novel, Clay — reviewed here by Yours Truly in November of last year — whom Fuse chose for Best Villain, but I digress). Hands down, Hyacinth’s creepiest moment to me was when she was training Maud in her deception, preparing her specifically to walk out with the wig and touch Mrs. Lambert during a seance:

“What happens when I materialize?” asked Maud. “Won’t she be able to see that I’m not a ghost?”

“It’s a problem,” agreed Hyacinth. “We haven’t done much with apparitions — there are tricks with mirrors I’d like to try — but I think Eleanor wants to hold you in her arms. You must be prepared for her to clutch you and kiss you and cry.” She gave a little shudder. “I detest that sort of thing, don’t you?”

Ooh. Sends shivers, no?

I think my favorite character, though — besides Maud — was Muffet. As a sign language interpreter myself (I should just start saying “former sign language interpreter,” since I haven’t lifted my hands to hand-flap in a while), I really thought Mrs. Lambert’s comments about a “new school” opening for people who can’t hear (the work of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet) was fascinating. And, like Hyacinth, Muffet was expertly drawn. So far from a one-note character. Schlitz does characterization well, eh? Definitely a strength, though she does a lot well. And Mrs. Lambert — I will long remember that night-time shore scene in which Maud and Mrs. Lambert (not knowing yet who exactly Maud is) chat and Mrs. Lambert speaks of her daughter with such tenderness and grief.

eisha: Why “melodrama”? Um, I couldn’t say for certain, but here’s some guesses. I think maybe it’s used ironically, since this is set during the time period when melodramas were actually popular, and since on the surface it has the basic characteristics of one: “generally romantic, full of violent action, and often characterized by the final triumph of virtue.” Or you could also look at the fake seances they perform as sort of mini-melodramas, since they do involve overacting, heightened emotions, and even a musical accompaniment. Beyond those guesses, I really haven’t a clue.

Yeah, I liked Muffet too. And I went a little red-faced when I read Maud’s reaction to her: “I thought a deaf person would be quiet.” I once thought the same thing, back before I took all those ASL and Deaf Culture classes and actually started interacting with deaf people. How embarrassingly naive I was. I thought everyone’s reactions and interactions with Muffet were very sadly true-to-life, too, especially for the time period. For instance, the Hawthorne sisters had employed her basically her entire life but had never bothered to see if she could learn to read or write, or to come up with any formal means of communication with her.

Like you, I don’t have much to criticize about this story. I really thought it was excellent, and I can’t wait to see what Laura Amy Schlitz comes up with next.

jules: Good points, all. Yes, I’m intrigued, too, to see what Schlitz does next. She’s a groovy new talent, for sure (how’s that for some hard-hitting critical analysis?).

Thanks, as always, for book-talking with me, Eisha. Until next time . . .

9 comments to “Co-Review: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! Hyacinth is so villianous! Loved Maud. Loved Muffet. Loved the “melodrama” subtitle. I also found this book completely unputdownable! Definitely my favorite turn-of-the-century read since Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light (have you two read that?).

    You know what else I loved? The moment when I realized why the book is titled A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. Aha!

    I don’t know what I would have thought if I had read this book in my childless youth. But now that I have a baby son, I felt completely horrified by the way the sisters tricked Mrs. Lambert into “seeing” Caroline. How very cruel!

  2. Most excellent, dudes! Like you, loved this one. I also loved how the spirtualism turned out to be totally, stone-hearted nonsense. I thought that worked well with the “melodrama” subtitle. Surely in a real melodrama there would be real spiritual activity!

  3. Hey, Kate! I haven’t read A Northern Light, but you’re the third person to recommend it, so I guess I’d better.

    Hey, Kelly! But dude, Victoria did once have dreams of the dead, and Maud does too – so there is a hint of “real” spiritualism. But yeah, I loved all the details of how the sisters were pulling off their scam.

  4. Love A Northern Light. So good . . . Thanks for commenting, all.

  5. Awww, thanks! I’m glad to hear that so many people enjoyed the blurb I wrote for this book. It’s hard to think of something to say about such a fabbity fab fab book — but it’s a good thing I have such good examples like yourselves for inspiration.

    Keep up the good work — I love your book reviews!

  6. This book has been on my to-read list since before The Cybils announcement – after which I said, “Okay, I MUST read this!”

    I’ve intended to read A Northern Light for years.

  7. I liked A Northern Light too. I am taking home Drowned Maiden’s Hair today to get into this weekend. Great review!

  8. This was an amazing book and i am still young but I truly understood what the book was saying. It was even touching. IT’S A MUST READ!

  9. This book made me cry. This is one of those books that can mean one thing if you read it as a child and another thing completely if you read it as an adult. The ending was happy but it still made me feel inexplicably sad at the same time.

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