Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Earlier this summer I was wishing to visit new places via fantasy books, but I have to admit that it's also satisfying to revisit a place I have long loved: Victorian London, with its scrappy orphans, dapper gentlemen, and performers of all stripes.  I've been there before, and whether I'm reading Phillip Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy, Wilkie Collins's The Moon Stone, or anything by Dickens, the setting always gives me a delicious feeling of dread.

Splendors and Glooms has plenty of dread. The three children in the story are no strangers to tragedy: Clara is a poor little rich girl with four dead siblings; Parsefall is a puppeteer's apprentice who's terrified of his master; Lizzie Rose is a ladylike orphan still mourning her loving parents.

The three of them meet because Clara convinces her father to invite the Puppeteer Grisini perform at her otherwise depressing birthday party.  Parsefall and Lizzie Rose work for Grisini.  Clara saw the three of them performing in the park a few weeks before her birthday and became completely taken with the idea of having tea with the two children, despite the social chasm between them.

Clara's desire to befriend Parsefall and Lizzie Rose is so strongly felt that you just know it's all going to go wrong.  Indeed, the puppet show ends in humiliation and Grisini uses the performance to stage a magical crime.

::Not for the faint of heart

This is quite a serious book, for children.  It's not a bit silly or cute.  Some of the chapters are even told from the perspective of adults, like Grisini and Dr. Wintermute, Clara's father.  The author doesn't hesitate to reveal Grisini's evil designs on the children or Dr. Wintermute's ambivalence about his family relationships.

There's also another adult character, another villain, who occasionally gets a chapter to herself.  Her connection to the other characters isn't immediately clear, but she's obviously important.  All we know is that she's a witch and she possesses a cursed stone that's slowly killing her.

You may have noticed there's a lot of death in this book, but it's not a grind to read, because the children are so sympathetic.  Even Parsefall, who's described as smelly, sneaky, and selfish, is loved by Lizzie Rose and proves himself to be lovable (as well as savvy about people--much more so than Lizzie Rose, who tends to believe the best about people, despite evidence to the contrary).

::Plays within plays

The streetwise urchin and sweet-natured orphan are familiar characters, but Schlitz complicates them.  She shows how much children's goodness depends on the goodness of the people around them.  She further has the children reflect on their behavior in ways that raise questions about what it means to be good and how you can know if you love people.

I particularly like the plot device in which Lizzie Rose is told that, for Christmas, she may chose any item she likes from the house of a rich woman.  Trying to make a moral choice, Lizzie Rose models herself after a fairytale heroine:
"The youngest daughter always preferred the humblest gift: a rose instead of a diamond, a blessing instead of a fortune.  Things always seemed to turn out well for her."
Even though Lizzie Rose really is a good girl, she still feels the need to play the part of one.  In fact, all of the children play parts for the adults in their lives.  And when their masks slip, the consequences are serious.

So basically, this is a story about good and evil, but it's not an allegory.  Rather than having characters represent goodness and wickedness, Schlitz focuses on the battle between good and evil that goes on in each person.

::Read it?

As someone who works with children who come off as pretty tough and sometimes hard to trust, I appreciated the author's insights into the hearts of kids who have to take care of themselves.  Although I don't usually push old fashioned English fantasy novels on my students, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this one.

Of course, I'm not sure they'd actually like it.  All of the developing of character and knitting together of an elaborate plot appeals to me as an adult reader, but I wonder if kids wouldn't appreciate some more straightforward action.  Even I slowed down after about 300 pages, especially when the setting changed from bustling London to something more bucolic.

On the other hand, the gothic elements might effect them more.  Perhaps they'll really be spooked?

Certainly, this is a book that leaves a lasting impression. 

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