Saturday, February 02, 2008

Maisie, Maisie, Give Me Your Answer Do

I almost blogged about Maisie Dobbs last night, and went to bed feeling guilty over my lousy blogging schedule. But I'm so glad I didn't; last night, I was a little down on it, because the middle section--a flashback to the main character's early life and how she ended up being a 30-ish female detecting in 1929--kind of dragged. I needed some of the information, but as storytelling, it wasn't worth a third of the book.

But now I'm back in the "present day," and the plot is plummeting along, and I've leaped up from the couch at least twice shouting a warning to the characters. Mike thinks I'm nuts, but you can't argue that it's a good sign in a detective novel.

There are a couple of problems with the middle part, but it's mostly that you don't get much new information at all. The beginning of the book lets you know that Maisie was a war nurse, that she is the protege of a lady of means and an older gentleman detective, that she loved someone who met his end in the war. You could say these things are teased, but I really think they are indicated--you don't need much more. Then you get to the flashback, and you meet Maisie's father (which is pretty important), and learn how she started as the daughter of a barrowman, entered service (got a job as a maid, for those non Anglophiles out there), was discovered by the progressive lady of the house to be brilliant, and sent to college. Then she meets her gentleman, goes to be a nurse, etc. None of this, except her relationship with her father, adds much to what we learned earlier, and any of it could have been included in the first part of the book.

I also find it interesting, as a modern American, to read books about England of the past, because the class system is so important and so different from anything we could experience. Think about it: as an American, is there anything surprising about a smart serving girl earning her way to college? Would it even surprise you in 1920? Not really--there's a deep understanding here that starting out as a servant has less bearing on where you end up in life than how hard you work or what skills you have or what you want to do. But in England, in 1920, that was only just becoming the case.

I'm reminded of reading Emma with my book group, and talking about snobbery in Jane Austen, and how Austen indicates that Emma's friendship with her silly friend whose name I can't remember is inappropriate, or how in P&P Darcy needs to choose a wife of his breeding. The thing that's so hard to remember is that different classes really led totally different lives in those days--Darcy was not just looking for a life partner, but a business partner who would run the estate in such a way that it (and all the many people who depend on it for a living) would prosper. And to choose a woman who had no experience or not enough good sense to do that would be truly irresponsible.

God I loved English class.

Anyway, I'm seriously digressing. I'm totally loving Maisie Dobbs, and I'm excited to read the next in the series as well. In fact, I hope that, without the flashback, it's a cover-to-cover ripping good yarn.


Kris said...

Her name is Harriet Smith. And I promise you I did not have to look that up :)

LibraryHungry said...

I doff my proverbial cap (or perhaps I should bob a curtsy?) to my Austenian better. I could never have come up with that!