Review: Splendors and Glooms September 10, 2012Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
If there was a prize given for “Best Creepy-Yet-Ultimately-Reassuring Middle Grade Book” Laura Amy Schlitz would win hands down for her latest beauty Splendors and Glooms. This is most similar in tone to A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, her tale of spiritualism in the early 20th century.
Clara lives in a beautiful house in London with servants, delicious food and two parents who would do anything to keep her safe and well. Yet her life is sad and constricting and she wishes she could be out on the streets, performing with the children who operate Mr. Grisini’s fabulous puppets. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall spend their days trudging through cold, dirty streets with little food and avoiding the worst of Grisini’s temper. When they visit Clara’s house to perform for her birthday party, it feels like entering a magical world of warmth and light. But then Clara disappears, suspicion falls on Grisini and Lizzie Rose and Parsefall must solve the mystery.
Schlitz makes it clear with her setting and characters that this story is an homage to Dickens and Victorian London, and pretty much up until Clara’s disappearance it reads like historical fiction. Interspersed with the story of the children, however, is the tale of Grisini and Cassandra, a witch who is his ancient rival. From the beginning, Cassandra’s powers are clear, as is her dependence on a magical object, a fire opal. How far Cassandra is willing to go to free herself from it’s influence gives the story suspense, especially after Lizzie Rose, Parsefall, and Clara get caught up in her schemes.
One of my favorite things about Schlitz’s writing has always been her magnificent descriptions, which made me feel as though I was standing in Clara’s room, looking out past the two sets of curtains “claret-colored velvet on top, frilled muslin next to the glass.” I got to go see the Royal Marionette show with Lizzie and Parsefall, watching the “…knights and fairies, demons and clowns, sword fighting, slapstick and the ballet…the showmen had used every material to its best advantage: looking glass, pasteboard, paint and wax; wood, cloth and papier-mache.” The book is also beautifully designed, with a gorgeous cover by Bagram Ibatoulline and a splendid spine that looks like a column in a theater. As a puppeteer, I found Schlitz’s use of marionettes to be a perfect metaphor for her tale of children trying to take control of their own lives. It was easy to visualize Grisini’s puppet theater and show from her well-chosen details.
Plucky orphans, magical stones and vindictive witches are fairly common tropes in children’s literature, but Schlitz breathes fresh life into them with her dimensional characters, suspenseful plot and entirely earned happy ending. Hear Schlitz speak about this book at the National Book Festival on September 22 or go find a copy at your library now!