Splendors and Glooms
Puppets and their masters can provide rich fodder for not only thematic material but, in the case of Laura Amy Schlitz's SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, genuinely creepy plot points. As readers are pulled more and more deeply into the atmospheric Victorian world that Schlitz constructs, they realize the extent to which the puppet master figuratively and even literally controls his creations.
Clara is wealthy, sheltered, and more than a little bit lonely. All four of her siblings died from cholera after eating some tainted watercress; her mother has clearly never recovered from her grief, and her father not-so-secretly wishes that Clara, rather than her beloved twin brother, had died. So when, on a rare visit to the park, Clara spots the charismatic Grisini and his lifelike marionettes, she pesters her parents until they agree to include Grisini's puppet show in her birthday celebration. What no one understands, though, is that Clara's fascination is as much with Grisini's young assistants --- the urchin Parsefall and the orphan Lizzie Rose --- as it is with the puppets they operate.
"[T]he characters are in large part complexly and convincingly drawn, and the emotions they convey and evoke are just as genuine as the Victorian world Schlitz creates."
Parsefall and Lizzie really couldn't care less about Clara. Their primary focus is on where their next meal is coming from and, for Parsefall, on learning how to make the puppets move with the same effortless grace that Grisini conveys. But when Clara disappears --- an apparent victim of kidnapping --- and it turns out that her disappearance is part of a pattern in Grisini's career, the two young people become increasingly interested in the case.
What's more, an aging witch who's dying a horribly agonizing death has her own ax to grind with Grisini. Together, the two hatch a plot that involves Parsefall and Lizzie --- and, by extension, Clara as well.
In case it's not obvious from this synopsis, the plot of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS is more than a little complicated, but that's part of its allure. Like a Dickens novel, the story builds on itself gradually, with frequent changes in venue and point of view, all adding up to create not only a wildly entertaining story but also a multi-faceted portrait of a Victorian England that can be simultaneously charming in some quarters and dismal in others. Schlitz --- who won the Newbery for GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!: Voices from a Medieval Village --- presents, unsurprisingly, a firm grasp on period details, which include not only concrete descriptions of place but also clever literary allusions to such works as THE NUTCRACKER and PINOCCHIO.
Of course, since this is a Gothic novel in every sense of the word, there's plenty of magic and melodrama in store for readers, as well as some moments of genuine horror. But the characters are in large part complexly and convincingly drawn, and the emotions they convey and evoke are just as genuine as the Victorian world Schlitz creates.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 8, 2012