Title: Mad Miss Mimic
Author: Sarah Henstra
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA, Mystery
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ | 1.5 out of 5.0
– not spoiler free –
I’m not really looking forward to writing this review. You know those books that are just kind of a chore to get through and you don’t care enough about them to write a long, thoughtful, in-depth review and really want to fall back on platitudes? This is it.
But I’m writing it anyway, because I don’t often see fiction that deals in a serious way with speech disorders, doesn’t treat the subject as a joke. In that respect, I was very gratified by the book. In many others, not so much.
Leonora Somerville is in many ways the perfect girl––she’s wealthy, she’s beautiful, and she’s well-connected. But she’s been through one too many Seasons and she can’t seem to find someone to wed––because she also has a stutter. Not merely that, but she possesses the ability to recall someone else’s voice with near-perfect accuracy––something her sister calls Mimic, which comes out when she is most anxious to repress it. The servants all call her “Mad Miss Mimic.”
The London she’s living in has been plagued by a rash of bombings perpetrated by the “Black Hand,” an opium gang seemingly voicing their discontent over a new bill introduced in Parliament that would outlaw opium. But, as Leonora begins to discover, the source of the trouble may be closer to home than she is willing to believe.
I picked up the novel initially because of the cover––it’s seriously stunning. But right from the get-go, the writing failed to live up to that beauty. In one word, it’s bland––well suited to the English culinary palate, perhaps, but not to the tastes of a reader. It’s just not––engaging. Neither is Leonora, truth be told, though her shyness is a coping mechanism for the mockery she faces because of her stutter and because of Mimic.
She’s also not exactly a likeable protagonist. And y’all know me, I like a good anti-hero, but the problem with Leonora is that she’s not supposed to be unlikable. She’s supposed to be the kind of protagonist you feel constant pity for, constant empathy for, but she just––doesn’t arouse any of those emotions, in part because the book is constantly pitying her (can we get rid of pity as an emotion honestly) and in part because she’s constantly pitying herself.
“Oh no poor me I’m so oppressed” can only be relatable as a sentiment provided you’re not actively engaging in the oppression of other people, but the novel can only accomplish a measure of likeability for Leonora so long as no other woman is complex, or even––god forbid––good. Leonora and her Aunt (a woman old enough not to pose a romantic threat to her) are the only female characters framed as being in some way worthy of the narrative’s sympathy, and in 2017 that’s become intensely tired. I’m tired. Moreover, I am bored.
If you’re not Leonora, you may be one of several other people:
- Christa, a sister who is overbearing and is constantly attempting to force the stutter out of Leonora, constantly attempting to mold her into a conventional lady (as if Leonora wasn’t conventional enough tbqh), conveniently punished by an opioid addiction that’s obvious to everyone but the protagonist. The novel deals very shallowly with addiction itself, largely using stereotypes of needle tracks and dreaminess.
- Hattie, who dies not two pages in of an overdose, only ever summoned up as a ghost on which to displace guilt and pity, not really much of a character beyond “poor,” “dead,” and “addicted.”
- Bess, a lady’s maid with like, zero character attributes, only really there to be a maid.
- Daisy, see “Hattie,” only add the addition of being a convenient romantic rival to Leonora (but only for about 2 seconds, because gosh, who could love Daisy when Leo is around?) and also her being a “painted lady,” which gives her the additional characteristics of being grasping, carnivorous, and jealous.
There’s also this description, which I think gives a fairly accurate summation of the way the novel treats a) poor women b) women who are coded as sexual c) women who don’t like Leonora.
Sweeping aside the curtain, an aged parody of the younger woman emerged into the alley. She wore grey ringlets, and her rouged mouth made a thin circle of red around the gapped and blackened teeth*. Shrivelled breasts were propped and puckered into a semblance of cleavage, with a yellowed lace kerchief spilling from between them.
An image of the carrion poor, preying on poor Miss Mimic (or if you’re Tom, Miss Luck, a nickname that makes about as much sense as the rest of the novel), who is subsequently rescued by a rogue in shining stolen pocketwatches (of which, of course, she disapproves, because she’s not lawful good, she’s lawful neutral, in that she will follow the letter and the spirit of the law even if some laws are unjust).
Basically, if you are poor, have fun not being treated like shit by this narrative. If you’re a woman between the ages of 15 and 35, have fun being treated like shit. If you had a speech disorder, have fun being treated like shit.
Because basically you can guess what’s going to happen to Leonora’s speech disorder, right? So then the message becomes: the speech disorder is Leonora’s responsibility to overcome. It’s not other people’s responsibility to behave like decent fucking people and not make fun of her for it.
Strike two, yeah?
Strike three is probably not a problem for anyone other than myself, but it is this, and it is a big problem in any novel for me––it is opium. The very second that I learned the novel was going to be dealing in some large way with opium, every vestigial hackle I have was up. Because in my experience, British people + opium never fares well for the rest of us. The Opium Wars are a trauma that modern China has yet to let go of, and that is because opium devastated us. At the height of its popularity (smuggled into China by companies under the protection of the British Crown, which subsequently means that the British Crown oversaw the erection of an illegal (and it was very illegal) black market drug trade in China), nearly a quarter of the working male population was addicted.
The instigating event of the First Opium War was the destruction of 1000 tons of opium smuggled––by the way––illegally into Guangdong. The International Day Against Drug Abuse & Smuggling is June 26th, a commemoration of that destruction, oversaw by Lin Zexu.
British wealth is tied specifically into British empire. And in the case of opium, British opium is never divorced from British empire. Because the opium that was trafficked into China––and which was consumed at home in England––was grown in India. Opium in this time period is inextricable from Empire, Empire inextricable from profit, and profit inextricable from the cost of human lives––whether through the livelihoods destroyed and land exploited in India, the people addicted to laudanum in England, or the gentry addicted to opium in China.
Empire, in this novel, is a romantic thing. Francis Thornfax, an importer of opium, is one of the main romantic leads in this novel––and I can accept that on some level, but it’s the fact of his connection to empire that makes him compelling in Leonora’s eyes. It’s the fact that he’s sailing all over the world (that’s such a pleasant euphemism for colonies and spheres of influence and protectorates––and specifically the place that produces the largest amounts of opium for the British Empire; see again: India) that makes him attractive. It’s his sense of danger, even before she realises who he really is. And who he really is isn’t tied into the fact that he imports opium, it’s the fact that he’s attempting to profiteer through changing and then violating a law about opium.
And that, tbqh? Leaves me feeling incredibly gross. It’s not the explicit championing of empire that I’m concerned with––that’s easy to refute––it’s the condoning of empire through erasure and romanticisation that is more insidious.
Strike four (okay, there aren’t four strikes, but strike three is a foul ball mostly because of my personal dislike for almost all English-set stories about opium) is the characterisation––or lack thereof. Tom was a bland character, and I’m not really sure what Leo saw in him aside from his dark hair and fair skin (emphasised ad nauseum, we get it, he’s a vampire?). Thornfax was a bland villain, and I’m not really sure what Leo saw in him aside from his wealth and his blond hair (emphasised ad nauseum, we get it he’s a frat boy?), and I’m still not quite sure what either of them saw in Leonora aside from the fact that she’s real pretty? Like? Tom says he loves her, but have they even had a substantive conversation that didn’t result in a) a miscommunication b) further confusion?
Like, do y’all remember in Rebel Angels when Kartik, who is undercover as a coach driver, is seething with jealousy when Simon escorts Gemma to the ball? I remember, because I was crying because hah you won’t admit your feelings and now you’re jealous. Imagine that, and then dilute it thousandfold. Because a) Gemma had a personality b) Kartik had a personality c) Simon didn’t have a personality but at least he had genuine desires and readers could see what he liked about Gemma. Also, Gemma and Kartik had actual chemistry, Gemma and Simon bonded more than once over actual substantive things, and we got a whole book’s worth of development of the Gemma/Kartik relationship, and it took them until what, the third book to acknowledge that they loved each other?
This was like…romance for the sake of romance, a love interest who possesses the qualities of a love interest for the sake of being a love interests who possesses the qualities of a love interest. A villain whose villainy makes sense, but whose romantic interest in our erstwhile protagonist can mostly be described as ?????????
So yeah, I DNF’d this at 67%. The 33% curse is finally broken, only to be replaced with a multiples of 33% curse. And at this point, I’m mostly looking for a novel to break me out of my reading slump, and I don’t think this is it.
I also don’t think it’s a problem of my high standards anymore, either, because I loved Thick as Thieves, and I’m reading a Chinese novel right now that I’m eager to get back to. I think it is a problem with this book, and I’ve just had bad luck finding a good one.
But I’m mostly disappointed because this is such an under-addressed topic, and I thought that maybe the mediocre writing could be made up for by its representation of a girl who stutters. Even that, though, evaporates into nothing. Tell me, then. What am I reading this for?
*Actually, prior to modern dentistry it was the upper classes who had the worst teeth, because they were the ones with the most access to refined sugar? This is why Fantine had teeth to sell, and it’s why George Washington had a mouth full of the teeth of the people he enslaved. It’s because rich people had shit teeth and needed to take even that from the poor. Henstra has this dynamic all wrong. The poor aren’t the ones preying on the rich, it’s the other way around, and in a novel where the medical ethics allow for wealthy doctors and lords to use the impoverished as test subjects, you’d think an author would be more sensitive to this fact.