Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Maisie Dobbs by Jaqueline Winspear

I have such mixed feelings here, although I've ended the book with a general positive feeling, so that's good. I wanted to like it and I'm glad I eventually, mostly did. Maisie Dobbs came to my attention through Darla, and we seem to have very similar tastes in many bookish things...

Maisie Dobbs begins with us meeting the titular character through the eyes of a London newspaper seller, allowing us to observe her from a distance. She is setting up shop and trying to figure out what she should call herself; is she a private investigator? A psychic? Healer? We see her take on a case involving a woman who is apparently cheating on her husband -- only, of course, things are not as they seem, and Maisie must dig deeper.

The year is 1929, and Maisie is a Cambridge-educated woman who worked as a nurse in France during the Great War. By virtue of her extraordinary intelligence and observational skills, she's worked her way from her working-class roots to a woman who has the confidence and respect of people all over the place, from all walks of life.

I think I'll start with what didn't work for me at first, and then wrap up with what did.

In general, I think the problems I had were some strange language decisions on the part of the author, although my first problem was not of style, but of substance. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for books that include a little bit of the unexplained -- but I was a bit put off by the mystical way in which Maisie works at solving the mystery. And the reason I have trouble with this is that so much is made of Maisie's bookish intelligence, but she doesn't appear to rely on more than a highly trained sense of observation, some vague premonitions, and a knack for copying people's body language that gives her an incredible level of insight into their emotional state. Furthermore, the premonitions give us a bit of heavy foreshadowing (not forebludgeoning, but a little too close for comfort). This was extremely prevalent in the first seven chapters and I was pretty irritated by it. Because -- and this leads right into my second problem -- I didn't think the writing was good enough to convince me of anything.

The original problem for me, before I could put my finger on any of the other things that were annoying me, was the description. I couldn't get into the book because I had no mental pictures of place. But it's not like there were no attempts made; a particularly egregious example reads like someone giving directions through downtown London, as we follow Maisie from her office to a place where she is to observe her target. I have never been to London in the 1920s. Street names and tube station names mean absolutely nothing to me, particularly when listed off and given no attached characteristics whatsoever. I want description to give me a feel for the place. What I got was worse than no description at all. That particular passage made me want to chuck the book at the wall. And I was enough out of the story to think, "Her editor let her get away with this? What were they thinking?"

Another odd choice, but one I can forgive as possibly having a motive, nearly cost me the book. The first seven chapters are "present" -- set in the spring of 1929 -- and then there is an extended flashback to Maisie's childhood and on through the war years. I wasn't at all engaged by Maisie or the mystery for the first five chapters because I was too frustrated with the style, and was just starting to get into the mystery when all of a sudden I was thrown back into the past. I was highly irritated at what I perceived to be a complete momentum-killer.

But it turns out it was a good thing. Because around the middle of chapter eight, I was suddenly hooked. Here was all the background on Maisie I was missing -- here was the character I could like and enjoy. I grew, very quickly, to like Maisie. I grew, very quickly, to understand what made her tick. That flashback interlude gave me everything I'd hoped to find at the beginning of the book, everything I had been searching for in vain. Maisie's unexplained premonitions and intuitions were not treated so heavy-handedly, and I grew used to that, too. I don't know what was behind the decision to make this a flashback and not put it all at the beginning, although I wonder if it was so that we did see Maisie as an observer might see her, as opposed to empathizing with her; or so that we would be looking for clues ourselves in Maisie's past. I don't know, but it came really close to not working because I almost gave up before I got to the good bits.

That said, things really looked up from there. I got into Maisie's story, the descriptions were at least enough for me to insert my own ideas of place and people (mostly gleaned from watching a lot of BBC programming), and I started to get a feel for what was at stake, rather than being told what was at stake and feeling guilty for not really caring. There were still a few odd moments that read like a writer who needs a better editor (how can someone standing in a very nice restaurant "inspect the soles of their feet"? I translated it as "looking down intently" but this is not Pynchon; I shouldn't have to translate because it takes me out of the story again) but overall I was really pleased that I'd continued reading.

Especially because Winspear pulls off a bit of a twist that I did not see coming. Another irritation for me was that I thought I had the mystery figured by the end of chapter seven. But I wasn't totally right, and that was refreshing. And though I didn't feel the full emotional wallop that I get the impression I was supposed to feel at the end, I was emotionally engaged.

I think Maisie's an original character, and I like the historical period in which the series is set. I'd like to see Maisie use her book smarts a bit more and her intuition a bit less, but that might just be the Sherlock Holmes addict in me. Now that I have a better idea of what to expect, and a fuller background on Maisie, I'll certainly pick up Birds of a Feather to see how Maisie and Billy fare next.


Marg said...

I haven't started reading this series yet because I am already working through a different series set in a similar time frame. I am hoping to like it a lot when I do get to it!

Unknown said...

I think the reason I didn't like it quite as much as I expected to was that it was something fairly different from what I did expect. Now that I know what's going on, I'm looking forward to the next one!

Jill said...

I'm glad you ended up enjoying it. It's funny, I read it so long ago that I don't remember it very clearly. I do know that my library originally classed this as fiction, and it wasn't until book 3 came out that they finally gave up and moved them all into mystery. So when I read it, I don't think I was expecting a mystery series, more of an historical novel. I wonder if that would have changed your expectations as you read? I think they do get better over time as she hones her craft. I'll be interested to hear what you think of the next one!

Unknown said...

I try not to approach books with too many expectations, particularly genre-based -- but it's hard not to. Especially when I've picked up a book for some reason in particular. And I think it's very mood dependent whether or not I enjoy it when a book bucks my expectations, or whether I get annoyed!