I was pretty pleased when I heard our book club selected this novel for our January read. After all, wasn't "Room" amazing and clever and unlike anything you'd ever quite read before?
Alrighty then! It took only about 20 pages to realize this was no "Room". The first thing I had to do was look up what a "Slammerkin" actually was (a term used for a "loose dress" as well as a "loose woman"). I was plunged into the mid-1700's, so...historical fiction? Not at all what I was expecting, but why not?
Synopsis: Mary Saunders was born into a working-class family in the mid-1700's, daughter of a seamstress and a step-father that didn't pay her much attention. Mary was always one to admire quality clothing and finery, and was convinced it would be her ticket to a better life. Unfortunately, her desire for a pretty red bow led her down a path of no return, and at the age of 14 was on the streets, earning her living as a prostitute so she could possess these clothes. An unfortunate set of events sends her scurrying to her mother's childhood home of Monmouth, where a few well-selected lies land her a job as a seamstress for a dress shop owned by a respectable middle-class family. Mary's ambition cannot be tamed, however, and despite a new start with a new life, she turns back to old habits, and it ultimately leads to her undoing.
Loosely based on a true story, the author departs her regularly-traveled path deep into historical fiction. Rich in texture with intricate detail provided on the underbelly of London in the 1700's, class, race and gender stratification, and fashion, Donaghue has obviously done her homework and brings it to life for the reader. She also leads us by the hand to the dark side of ambition, greed, narcissism and their consequences.
My thoughts: Whatever I thought I was getting with this book, it wasn't this. To this moment, I am still not completely sure if I liked it or not. Let me try to explain.
On the positive side, the setting is incredibly real. If you were ever a geek like me and wished you could time travel back to this period, this is your chance. It isn't always pleasant, granted, but the filth, the depravity, the rats, the diseases, public hangings, the boarding houses, the drunks looking for a quick trick in a dark, reeking alley...you are there. What magnified these images for me was seeing "Les Miserables", and the prostitutes in that movie. Time periods were slightly different, and the cities were different, but that was how I imagined it. This part of the book was enthralling.
In the first half of the book, the story is narrated by Mary. So we are only getting her side of the story. Still, even in her own words, girlfriend is not all that likable. She is immature, self-absorbed, and superficial. But she is scrappy, and one small part of me admired her pluck. She was a survivor if nothing else.
In the second half of the book, once Mary escapes to Monmouth, the narrative opens up and we get some other perspectives from characters within Mary's toxic orbit. For me, the clouds parted and we see her for the despicable bitch that she is. With the swish of a hip or the purse of her lips, she would ruin the most decent person's life for the betterment or pleasure of herself. It wasn't hard to figure out what her fate would be, and that was just fine by me.
At the end, I was also left feeling empty-handed. I wasn't sure what the bigger message was here, except that maybe...Karma is ruthless? Bad decisions have consequences? There are other things more important than pretty clothes? It was a page-turning read, absolutely, with plenty of stomach-turning descriptions, lewd behavior, and colorful characters. But the complete package lacked something important. I also finished the story feeling...slimy and unsettled.
So did I like it? It was compelling. The period was fascinating. But I was glad to move on after it was over.
3 out of 5 stars