Looking for an engaging, quick but literary, character-driven mystery? Spend a cozy Saturday curled up with Alexandra Andrews’ debut novel. First, you’ll have to get past the unlikability of almost all the characters in the novel – it’s a testament to Andrews’ writing that despite really disliking nearly every character I still devoured this book. I may not have been any more interested in spending time with Florence Darrow than her colleagues, but I was interested in what would happen to her in this book. She has a bit of a Tracey Flick quality about her – swap politics for a bookish literary ambition. At 26, she has managed to move to New York and find a job in publishing, but her life seems stalled. After a series of decisions leads her to blow up her current job, she lands a new gig as the assistant to a mysterious writer known as Maud Dixon. That’s a pseudonym for an author that published a wildly successful book whose plot revolves around young girls in a small town who commit a murder. Our narrator, like almost everyone else, was taken by this book – we’re told the writing was brash and incisive, and the mystery of the author itself keeps the whole world talking about this one-hit-wonder.
Florence meets the real Maud – a woman named Helen Wilcox. Helen Wilcox is a lit cigarette dangling over a half empty wine glass. Helen Wilcox is an opera playing on a tape deck in the woods. Helen Wilcox is a coq au vin and a glass of whiskey. Helen Wilcox is a lead foot and a silk robe. Helen Wilcox is a walking strip of red lipstick. Helen Wilcox is a 32 year old cosplaying a 65 year old. She is enigmatic with specific, exacting tastes. She “leaves the small details to small minds.”
Enter Florence Darrow.
Florence’s thinking is stymied by her lack of experience, but as she spends time with her new boss she absorbs her affectations. She accepts an offer to travel to Morocco with her boss to ostensibly research a story, and the plot thickens. Once in Morocco, their trip goes horribly sideways, and from there I think most readers will be able to make some guesses about where the plot is heading. While I didn’t find the plot twists to be all that surprising, I did really enjoy reading each page.
Although I enjoyed this book a great deal, I did think there were some problems. As mentioned above, I didn’t really like anyone in this book. Florence is a tough narrator to like – most of the time she seemed so detached from her decisions. But most of all, I despise characters like Helen. Well, I despise people like Helen (not the wine drinking, story telling sort of person – that kind is just fine by me – it’s the sort of person who hires an assistant and then screams at her for asking to clarify her handwriting – because she simply cannot be bothered to type DESPITE BEING OF AN AGE WHERE SHE SURELY HAD TO TYPE to graduate high school). At many moments my dislike of Helen generally felt more distracting than engaging. I also felt like the stakes got VERY high – like, murder high – in a way that didn’t feel completely earned. Early in the book, Florence tells a story about her mother (a woman she has polite feelings toward but no real warmth and certainly a disdain for her taste) reading a story she had written and her feedback was along the lines of, “I don’t get this giant plot hole” rather than “I see what you did there” – sort of giving the readers a preview of how you should read this book. Don’t be Florence’s mom, who reads too literally – don’t wonder why Helen Wilcox is revealing her identity to this woman, or how the body count gets alarmingly high. Just go with it. Try to see what the author is doing, what point she’s making. This is supposed to be literary. And also, a damn good time.