Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio
Author: Maryka Biaggio
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Gilded Age / 19th century / 20th century / Michigan / Chicago / Courtesan / New York City / London / Pinkerton / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Doubleday (1/15/2013)
Source: The publisher.
Rating: Loved -- I couldn't put this down.
Did I finish?: Oh yes -- I really couldn't stand not reading it!
One-sentence summary: Small town Michigan girl May Dugas seeks love and a comfortable living -- and finds herself branded the most dangerous woman in America.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, What's in a Name
Do I like the cover?: I love it -- I don't quite think it has anything to do with the story, really, but the color and arrangement is striking.
I'm reminded of...: Carol K. Carr, Ellen Cooney, Janet Mullany
First line: I believe, dear reader -- and these words come from the bottom of my heart -- that I can truly trust you.
Do... I love the author's website?: YES. It is loaded with extras, like a reader's guide (an info on how to invite her to speak with your book club!), Parlor Talk, in which our heroine May gives dubious advice to the lovelorn, and an annotated list of the author's favorite books on writing.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you love dramatic, unreliable heroines, the Gilded Age, and soap opera-like plot twists.
Why did I get this book?: The cover. The setting. The Pinkertons!
Review: I just loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. It was flippant and fun, total escapism, with a minxy heroine I adored from the first page, a long list of exotic locales to divert, and piles of dramatic intrigue to keep me engaged.
Set in the late 1880s through 1910s, the story follows May Dugas, a small town Michigan girl with a foxy figure, clever mind, and an impatience with ordinary life. Told in first person, May's 'voice' is sophisticated, wily, artificially innocent, glib.
The novel opens in 1917, with May on trial, accused of swindling more than $50,000 from a former friend, Miss Frank Shaver. Returned to her childhood hometown of Menominee, Michigan, May has been dubbed by the Pinkertons as 'the most dangerous woman in America'. (And without having murdered a soul!) Notorious, rich, and titled (she's a baroness now!), May tells the reader the truth of how she came to that point. (I didn't put truth in quotes because I've decided she's sharing the truth -- I'm like her innumerable suitors, smitten past the point of reason!)
May reminded me of Lola Montez, another notorious adventuress with lovers and scandals trailing behind her like the train on her dress. May's story strains credulity until you remember, like Ms. Montez, May was a real woman. Biaggio does a wonderful job of making May's escapades seem feasible, albeit excessive, and I was with her every ill-timed, poorly-conceived, and ambitiously bold step of the way.
The other characters in the book -- especially the men -- are rather flat (and I don't think that's a bad thing!), but that's to be expected with May. She's the star of her own story, and with good reason: men are drawn to her for same reasons we are. Biaggio balances May's self-centered ruminations, justifications, and pep talks with lovely tidbits and details about the era, setting, clothes, and mores. (Biaggio doesn't stint on describing May's flashy jewels and I could practically see them winking at me from between the lines.)
The novel alternates with the trial and May's account of her life. I will say, I've recently tired of dual storylines, especially when they break up the flow and action of the story, but in this case, I actually enjoyed the two timelines. Both lines are fascinating, and thankfully Biaggio ends each chapter neatly, with no wild cliffhangers -- which means I can go into the new chapter relatively relaxed. (Relatively, as overall, I couldn't stop mentally screaming, 'So how does it all end for May?!')
I think this would make a wonderful audiobook due to the first-person narration and May's lively tone. Despite May's sexual prowess, this book is light on tawdry details, so no need to worry about detailed or flowery descriptions of her and her lovers. In the end, this was a straight up enjoyable novel -- the kind of book that sucked me in, made me miss my subway stops, and had me reading as I walked up the sidewalk home. If you like your hist fic with a hint of grandeur and a heavy dollop of drama, consider this!
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Parlor Games to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 2/15. For another chance to win, see the interview with the author.