Mad Miss Mimic
I didn’t expect my very first ARC* review to be a ranty one, but here we are.
Mad Miss Mimic caught my eye on NetGalley for a slew of reasons, most of which revolve around my obsession with Jane Austen (“Jane Austen meets Arthur Conan Doyle,” boasts the book’s synopsis), my interest in Victorian society (true story: I’m a nerd), and my burning curiosity regarding the representation of a heroine with a significant speech impediment.
Let me tell you now that I was disappointed on all three fronts; I was mired in boredom for most of the book, and deeply pissed in the end. My feminist, pro-disability-(etc.)-in-YA heart can’t take this book. Because I’m so ready to put this book behind me, this review will be a (long-ish) spoiler-free, bulleted-list thing instead of a full-length critique.
But it’s crucial to point out the two aspects of this book that I found especially problematic, so at the end of the review I’ll put up a big TINY SPOILERS AHEAD warning, and two additional bullet points addressing the source of my anger.
If you’re interested in this book and care at all about feminism and disability in YA, please read those tiny spoilers.
*ARC: Advanced Reader Copy. As much as I didn’t enjoy this book, I’d like to extend a hug to the publisher for sending me an ebook copy before its publication date in exchange for my honest review. Penguin Random House Canada is awesome, and I appreciate them letting me pick apart their book. (Sorry, guys.)
Jane Austen meets Arthur Conan Doyle in a historical fiction debut for fans of Ruta Sepetys and Elizabeth Wein.
Born into an affluent family, Leo outwardly seems like a typical daughter of English privilege in the 1870s: she lives with her wealthy married sister Christabel, and lacks for neither dresses nor trinkets. But Leo has a crippling speech impediment that makes it difficult for her to speak but curiously allows her to mimic other people’s voices flawlessly. Servants and ladies alike call her “Mad Miss Mimic” behind her back…and watch as she unintentionally scares off every potential suitor. Only the impossibly handsome Mr. Thornfax seems interested in Leo…but why? And does he have a connection to the mysterious Black Glove group that has London in its terrifying grasp? Trapped in a city under siege by terror attacks and gripped by opium fever, where doctors (including her brother-in-law) race to patent an injectable formula, Leo must search for truth in increasingly dangerous situations—but to do so, she must first find her voice.
Note: This book is a YA historical thing, and will be published on January 3, 2017. If for some reason you aren’t upset by what I’m about to describe, and you decide to give the book a try yourself, you’ll find it in the usual places, like your local library, Book Depository, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. But honestly, I hope people don’t condone this book’s messages by throwing money at it.
Starting with the positives:
- Our heroine, Leonora (a.k.a. Leo), possesses a significant stammer.
- Her stammer (and her other trait, the compulsive mimicry of other people) affects her identity and her life in a deeply judgmental and ableist society.
- The book has a strong opinion about the misogyny of upper class Victorian society, and I wholeheartedly agree with that opinion.
- The premise, the idea behind the characters’ interrelationships, and the message at the story’s heart are all genuinely neat.
Believe me, I wish I could list more positives.
Because I have quite a few flaws I’d like to highlight, I’m going to break down my list of negatives by category. (It’s for my sake as well as yours.)
- The book read like a promising draft in need of stylistic revisions. For example: almost everything that would have been more powerful when shown (for example, emotions shown through expressions, tone of voice, and body language) was actually told, and as straightforwardly as possible (such as stating “I was surprised,” rather than being shown gasping, flinching, blinking, etc.). As another example: metaphors were described at length, and then explained at length, thus sapping their impact. Stylistic issues like these make for boring reading.
- All books need to start with a hook, some interesting and engaging tidbit to grab the reader’s attention. This book’s first hook is ridiculously lazy: immediately before chapter one opens, we’re presented a newspaper article that (briefly) describes the Major Exciting Event that happens in the book’s climax. Chapter one then begins with Leo (our first-person narrator) narrating about how she was powerless during the events of and leading up to that climax, and how tragic her life now is post-climax. “Look,” this hook is muttering, “look how huge this climax is going to be. Aren’t you excited? Don’t you want to read more?” No, I am not excited. You just ruined the climax by showing me what’s going to happen both during and immediately after it.
- Every character, from our heroine to her love interest to the villains, was one-dimensional at best, and a one-dimensional caricature at worst. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you anything about Leo’s personality beyond the fact that she’s naïve and her speech impediment has made her shy. She’s . . . yeah, I can’t think of any other defining characteristics. Oh, she’s incapable of putting two and two together unless you drag out a chalkboard and walk her through the process; that’s a trait she exhibits consistently. I was not engaged by any of the characters.
- Due to everyone’s flatness, and the way emotions are told rather than shown, I felt zero chemistry between Leo and her love interest. This was especially frustrating because quite a lot of time was devoted to the romance.
- How and why, exactly, is Leo able to perfectly mimic a rich baritone voice? I ask because (a) it’s not necessary for the plot, (b) this book isn’t marketed as magical realism, yet there’s clearly something unnatural going on here, and (c) hundreds of thousands of transguys and masculine-presenting genderqueer people want to know.
- I can count on one hand the number of times Leo performs a plot-significant action (as opposed to passively hanging around as things conveniently happen around her), and still have fingers left over. Personally, I prefer my heroines be less passive, more engaged with the plot.
- The pacing was unbearably slow, due to both her passivity and the sequence of events in the plot itself. All told, not a great deal happens in the book, and the events that do happen are (in my opinion) not portrayed in a particularly engaging or compelling way. I spent several days struggling to finish the book, and it’s only about 250 pages long.
- This book should not be compared to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, because it contains zero mystery. The villain’s identity is shockingly obvious from the start, and Leo is as far from Sherlock-ish as humanly possible.
- There’s a significant, fundamental plot hole that greatly reduced my acceptance of the plot. (This could have been an easy fix in the editing process, unfortunately, so every time it reared its head—which was often—I had to engage in yet another gentle round of headdesking.)
- The setting, like the characters, did not feel fleshed out or realistic. There were a few genuinely neat setting descriptions, but I never felt like the book was set in real, historical London. History nerd that I am, I found that disappointing.
- There were too many (recurring, unaccountable) missteps regarding Victorian culture throughout the story. I had expected this book to provide at least a passably decent portrayal of Victorian society; why else would it have been compared to the Regency’s Jane Austen, whose works were such careful observations of and commentary on her own society? And don’t you dare tell me “because of the romance.”
- Although the book does point out the misogyny inherent in Victorian society, it hammers (loudly) on only a single key/aspect of that broad (multifaceted, pervasive) subject. I was disappointed that the book didn’t even hint at any of the countless other ways that misogyny affected women’s lives during that time. Even worse, this feminist message is comprehensively contradicted by some of the problematic aspects I’ll be raging about soon.
- The book’s synopsis claims Leo learns to face down her fear and find her voice, but no. No, she doesn’t. Sure, she pauses her narration of events to tell us that she suddenly overcame her fear (etc.), but her actions don’t support that claim. She can tell me she learned any life lesson she liked, but I won’t believe her unless I see that lesson affect her behavior/actions/life. As a result, the book’s heart felt as flat as the characters themselves.
Underlying Misogyny and Sizeism?
- The way this book describes women really put me off. Almost everyone Leo sees is described as unattractive, but while Leo only briefly acknowledged the ugliness of the male characters, she lingered gleefully on the grotesque of appearances of the female characters, describing their grossness with an unnecessary attention to detail. Only one male character is given the same long-form inspection of his physical disgustingness, and that’s only toward the end, after he’s revealed to be morally bankrupt. Leo never showed any other sign of misogyny; I was left with the feeling that it was actually the book that was vaguely misogynistic, not Leo herself.
- Leo/the book also loved to point out how “enormously fat” (direct quote!) people were, and how these people always seemed to be sweating through their clothes. And no, she didn’t describe these people in any other way (hairstyle, eye color, etc.), even though the skinnier people were described in terms other than just their weight. I won’t lie, this stuff pisses me off.
Two Infuriating Things
TINY SPOILERS AHEAD
And now, because I believe everyone should be aware of them before going into this book:
- Leo experiences a serious, prolonged case of “the guy I love is gone, so that means my life is over forever, I should totally just waste away locked in my room until I die because I’m not even a real person without him.” The only thing that convinces her otherwise is when the guy returns, and therefore her life is worth living again. This is an awful thing to tell women in general, and young women specifically: that they are worthless, and their lives are pointless, unless they’re with the guy they love. I was horrified and disgusted by Leo’s behavior, by her beloved aunt’s (lack of) response, and by the book’s apparent belief that this is all perfectly fine and normal and even romantic. It is not fine. It is not normal. It sure as hell is not romantic.
BUT EVEN WORSE, OH MY GOD:
- Leo’s lifelong speech impediment is magically cured toward the end, through the power of looove. Surely I don’t need to tell you that this is a terrible thing for books to do. I’m pissed enough about it as it is; I can’t imagine how much more deeply I would have been affected if I had a serious speech impediment, and finally got to see a protagonist share my exact struggle, only to find that they get to be made “normal” at the end because of bullshit nonsensical authorial interference. Why couldn’t Leo just keep the impediment? Nothing of importance would have changed about the story’s conclusion if she still stuttered. Removing someone’s impediment (or disability, or chronic illness, or mental illness, etc.) as a “reward” at the end of the book is unspeakably awful.
To be honest, I probably would’ve given this book one or one and a half stars (my “very bad” rating), except for those two deeply problematic aspects. Only poorly written and infuriating books get awarded that elusive half-star rating.
This book does have an interesting premise, and with significantly more editing it could be a fascinating and powerful story. The author clearly has some great ideas, and just needs more practice developing them and capturing them on paper. And, you know, a bit more of a feminist and non-ableist education. There’s a chance that I’ll be looking her work up again in, oh, six or seven years, after she’s gained more experience and begun to settle into her craft.
But for now, I need to go curl up with a better book to cleanse me of my rage.