Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Mar 6, 2013
While in the midst of this book, Mike asked me what it was about, and I said, "It's unlike anything I've ever read" and proceeded to give a haphazard synopsis that just left Mike scratching his head and saying, "That is unlike anything I've ever read." I'll try to be somewhat more succinct here.
When the story begins, Clara Wintermute is excitedly anticipating the party for her 12th birthday. A few weeks before, she saw Gaspare Grisini's puppet show in the park and was delighted both by the show and also by his two young assistants, Parsefall and Lizzie Rose. Clara begs her father to hire the puppeteer for her birthday party, and although he is very distrustful of foreigners, he has a hard time denying Clara anything. (When she was but five years old, her four siblings contracted cholera and died, which means her parents are a bit overanxious and extravagant when it comes to Clara.) During the party, Clara succumbs to a fit of laughter, which embarrasses and distresses her mother and causes her to say some unkind things to Clara. The next day, Clara can't be found. At first, her parents are worried she ran away, but the more they think about it, the more convinced they become that Gaspare Grisini had something to do with it.
But that's only half of the story (which is why I was having such a difficult time describing it to Mike). There's also an ancient witch, Cassandra, who is desperate to be relieved of a fire opal, a powerful charm that is burning her alive. Many years ago, Grisini, knowing of the fire opal's power, tried to steal it from Cassandra. That attempt ended badly for Grisini, but now Cassandra wants him back. She is convinced if she can only tempt one of his young assistants to steal it from her, she can be freed from the curse which is torturing her.
The adjective "well-crafted" is often used to describe tight, interweaving plots with dense character development. And "well-crafted" is exactly how I would describe Splendors and Glooms. The plot is rich and mysterious and unfolds very slowly and meticulously. I have no idea what Laura Amy Schlitz's writing habits are like, but I imagine her shuffling around the scenes and rewriting them over and over again until they are exactly where and how they should be. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Schlitz can get all the details right the first time, but I think it's more likely that the details take time to come together, and that certain elements can only work themselves out by being written one way and then rewritten another way.
For example, there is one scene where Clara's father is waiting to give a large ransom to an unknown individual. When the scene ends, he is still waiting for the clock to strike midnight and the kidnapper to appear. Meanwhile, certain events transpire that make it impossible for anyone to come for the ransom money. For several chapters, the reader knows, in part, how the events of the evening played out, but what of Clara's father? What was that long, cold, horrible night like for him? In my imagining, I picture Schlitz originally including a description of Clara's father's night not long after the other details are given. But then she deletes that scene, choosing instead to save the details for later in the story when Clara's father shares them with Lizzie Rose. I had to wait a long time for that information, and when it finally came, I thought it was perfectly placed. There are many instances similar to that one where I really had to wait for little details and pieces of information. And the waiting made the finding out so much sweeter. Does anyone else picture the writing habits of authors? Or am I just weird like that? I love to learn about the journeys that authors go on with their stories until the final draft surfaces, uncluttered and clean and beautiful.
Along the same lines, many times as I was reading, I was sure I had figured out some element of the story only to be completely wrong. When Clara recognizes that Parsefall's life is in danger because of the fire opal, I was sure she was going to sacrifice herself and beat him to it. But that didn't happen (at least, not at that point), and I just think it is a delightful experience to always be guessing and supposing, even if half the time you end up completely wrong.
I will say three honest things about this story; these aren't necessarily criticisms, more just observations. First, this is a very slow-moving story. Beautiful, yes. Captivating, yes. Suspenseful, yes. But slow. There are many conversations that go on for pages and pages with very little transpiring in the end. I even found the epilogue, which takes place at a funeral, to be never-ending, even though it was, in fact, the end. So this is not a story you would read if you wanted a fast-paced page-turner. You would read this if you want to get lost in a really amazing story. One upside to slow plot development is that the characters have plenty of time to come alive. I loved them, especially Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. I wanted to adopt Parsefall.
Second, this story is dark. I was actually surprised with how mature some of the content was. If I was recommending it, I would give it to children ages 12 and up. The puppeteer, Grisini, is an evil man. He is physically and emotionally and verbally abusive to Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. He is motivated by frighteningly wicked motives and intentions. There is also quite a bit of violence: Grisini has a near-fatal fall down the stairs; Cassandra uses the fire opal to make him bleed profusely; and Grisini meets his end by drowning and then being frozen under the ice. There were definitely some gruesome moments. Plus, some of the subject matter is just hard to deal with: Parsefall and Lizzie Rose live in really deplorable conditions, and Parsefall's fear and anxiety are really heart-wrenching.
Third, for most of the book moving so slow, the actual climax (particularly the destruction of the fire opal) was a little fast for me. Just my opinion.
I listened to the audio, which was narrated by Devina Porter. She was fantastic. It was a treat to listen to her interpretation of the characters. I think my favorite voice was Parsefall's. She nailed him. He sounded every bit the street urchin I imagined him to be.
It occurred to me more than once that this is the kind of book you expect to receive Newbery recognition. The writing is brilliant. The story is fresh and original. The characters are people you would actually want to meet. And when you're done, it stays with you in a really good way.