In which I do a rough courtroom sketch
This won’t be a full review, as I’ve written for other, similar novels like Bunny and The Girls; I’m saving that for an Actual Publication I’ve spent some months trying to battering-ram my way into. (If I succeed, you’ll know.) But I can’t not comment here on Alexandra Andrews’s Who Is Maud Dixon?
I was alerted to its imminent publication back in February and pre-ordered the e-book. I began reading shortly after it arrived but became sidetracked by other reading and, you know, work, and didn’t bring my full attention back to it until last week. At which point I finished within three days.
It follows a reclusive writer, supposedly at work on a follow-up to the debut that made her world-famous, and the young publishing-assistant-with-literary-aspirations who is drawn into her world. You expect it to maybe take an All About Eve turn, and you aren’t entirely wrong. Later, you might draw a comparison to The Shining, and you wouldn’t be far afield there either.
So here follows a survey of what I loved about this narrative:
- It’s almost wholly female-driven—only two men figure in with any significance, and even then mostly as the means to an end—and the various relationships between the various women form the heart of the action and tension.
- The two central women are built up to be polar opposites, and then revealed in a few crucial ways to be very much the same.
- The inciting incident is truly both inciting and an incident—one of the best I’ve encountered recently. It first strikes you as insane, and then you’re kind of thrilled by it, as the protagonist is.
- Said protagonist is a little unhinged. She can get carried away with visions of future glory. The Cecilia of ten years ago would have been just as intrigued by her—if memory serves, the Cecilia of ten years ago even wrote a protagonist not unlike her, albeit whose ambitions were on a smaller scale.
- It sometimes functions almost antithetically to a typical thriller: there are certain details you register as Things to Remember, and then they never show up again. But you didn’t notice, you were too busy being caught off-guard by something else.
- International travel! Expat communities and all!
- Characters get swept up in one another’s potential and allure, only to reminisce later and wonder what they could ever have found attractive about those people. Universal.
- There’s enough drinking for you to suspect it might be a story of alcoholism…but alcohol turns out to be the least of anyone’s worries.
- You just know Andrews must have wrecked her search history Googling how certain crimes are carried out. The detail is meticulous.
- It’s never explained how some characters got the way they are, how they justify their actions to themselves. A good reminder for aspiring writers that all that personality deconstruction often doesn’t matter, if the rest of the backstory—and the present story—can do the heavy lifting it needs to.
- It warns you that no one is immune to the corruption of ambition. But it also celebrates ambition in its own perverse way.
I’ve said before that I love a book that calls out literary culture (or perhaps the Cult of Literature, I haven’t decided). Andrews does it well, particularly because she isn’t overly focused on it but merely considers it a stop on the way to telling the story proper. Will have you turning the pages, even on an iPad.
Image: Little, Brown & Company, 2 March 2021