Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 294 pages

Publisher: Soho Press, 2003

Price: $24.00

ISBN-10: 1569473307

ISBN-13: 978-1569473306

Because I could get my hands initially on a Maisie Dobbs book further in the series (Birds of a Feather), I came back to read the first book, simply titled Maisie Dobbs, second. Two did it. I am now a dyed-in-the-wool Maisie fan, and vow not to miss any more in this series of, so far, six, with the most recent out just this past February 2009. Jacqueline Winspear, you have made a convert out of me! If I was borderline with my introductory Birds, I have officially crossed that line now.

I couldn’t be more surprised.

See, I was (am) anything but a mystery and detective novel fan. Anything but. Well, almost anything. Only thing worse in my mind than a detective novel is a romance novel. All that gushing, stereotypical female at her weakest worst. All that machismo and bravado male at his weakest worst (it takes courage to have and express real emotion). And the writing in these genres tends to be some of the most formulaic and predictable, cheap and easy stuff found on a bookshelf. And so, I was a tad surprised when my book club literati suggested we read at least a couple Maisie Dobbs books. Heck, I wasn’t even sure where the mystery section in my public library is located. But I have always vowed to try to be open minded about such things, and I do respect the literary minds in this book club, so …

So, I am now this fervent fan. I’ll tell you why. It is interesting to me that in this day and age of women supposedly having all kinds of opportunity open to us, we have sunk to the lowest levels of objectification ever seen. Not only do we allow it, too many of us even greet it, readily playing along, eager to please. Never mind that we may well be snickering behind the backs of the opposite gender, salivating over this objectified woman-type. No one ends up looking good in that scenario. Fools, all.

And so it would seem logical that Maisie Dobbs would be a character in modern day, this time for women to excel, nothing holding us back but ourselves. Instead, Maisie lives in the early to mid 1900s, in post World War I London. She is the strong and liberated, financially and otherwise independent woman we should all strive to be—today. You might even say … a true heroine.

Yet if yesterday the hero figure was popular, this is the day of the anti-hero. Whatever that means. I puzzle over the term. “Anti” means not, or against, or opposing, right? How did we come to elevate the not-hero, in short, the villain, the dark and shady and cowardly type, over the good guy, or, in this case, the good gal? I don’t get it. I don’t want to get it. I, for one, long for the hero to rise again, or perhaps even for the first time, because the hero of yesterday, wearing his white hat, was always male, and was anything but real. The classic old movies made him a figure of impossibility, equating perfection with goodness and courage. Yesterday’s hero was nothing more than fantasy, and clearly unattainable by mortal man or woman. It is knowing one’s imperfection, and not giving into it, however, that makes the hero—and heroine. Not being fearless, but being indeed afraid (only fools know no fear), fully aware of one’s weakness, and doing the right thing just the same.

Maisie Dobbs is one terrific heroine. She is strong, yet soft. Wise, yet willing to learn at every opportunity given her. Great hearted, but with discrimination. She uses her clever mind rather than trickery. She takes no shortcuts. She never has any need for any weapon other than her keen mind. She always keeps her promises. Most importantly, she is realistic and attainable. There is no reason whatsoever that a girl or a woman today couldn’t emulate this character and hold her up as role model. And oh, we could use a few…

Rather reminded me of the books I read as a girl. I read eagerly, learned something, saw the world expand, felt inspired. But the Maisie Dobbs series is not Nancy Drew; these are sophisticated novels, very well written, complex and intelligent. They contain the best of this age—one in which I firmly believe we are seeing the best written fiction we have ever seen (and the worst, but that’s to be expected as the flip side of the same coin). That is, we witness a strong, leading female character in a book, even if it perhaps requires a background setting spanning 1912 to 1929 to encompass her. One wonders… would she find it possible to be so strong and true today? One hopes.

There, then, you have the character. The storyline of Maisie Dobbs in this introductory novel is a masterly balance of the young detective-psychologist solving her first cases while dealing also with a traumatic and war-torn past. The current mysteries unfold around chapters that look into her past. We see her formative years, her family roots, the difficulties of a hardworking childhood when her mother died young and her father struggled against poverty. Young Maisie learns a work ethic that will suit her lifelong. She expects no favors, but earns them. She lives by the Golden Rule, treating others as she would be treated, even when she is not.

Breaking class lines, young Maisie earns her way into university in a time when women were allowed to attend but were not allowed to receive diplomas, even when completing all the same class requirements as their male counterparts. Outside of the classroom, her education is enriched by tutors who work with her to sharpen not just her intellectual abilities, but her intuition, her understanding of the psychology of the human mind and nature. This is the most fascinating aspect of the Maisie Dobbs character, and so refreshing from the gun-toting tough guys in the genre—she does not fight, but indeed embraces, her feminine strengths, and develops a woman’s intuition based on keenest observation. She learns to use and read body language to detect the false. She emulates and mirrors movement and expression, not only to put another at ease, but also to fully feel what the other is feeling. As she questions her suspect, she eases into his posture, tries on his expression, matches his stride and breathing pattern … until she herself can feel what the other feels. When she does this—these quickly became my favorite sections of the book. I know of no other female character, in literature or cinema, that doesn’t try to outdo being a man in feminine guise. Maisie Dobbs remains fully feminine, and uses her feminine wisdom and strengths to her advantage, and without ever taking advantage. Her strength is in her mind, in her heart, in her ability to fully feel compassion for another. She does not beat her enemy as much as she brings him over to her side, earning respect, trust, and opening even the toughest and iciest hearts. Because even a bully has one.

In this first book, we also come to understand Maisie’s great love, Simon. Her background was as a war nurse, his, as a doctor. A shell hits the Red Cross tent where the two work, and while Maisie survives with scars, inside and out, Simon survives, but only in a vegetative state. We see this struggle in Maisie, too, as she continues her work—her own recovery, while grieving for the dream lost. In the mystery case she solves in this book, we read of veterans forgotten by society, or who are repellent to society because of their great physical wounds. It is an opportunity for us all to look in the mirror, to contemplate all wars. It is an exploration of the many kinds of wounds a human being can take, and not take, and what healing requires.

All great stuff. A character that is memorable and inspiring; a storyline that is evocative and thoughtful; writing that is highly skilled and moving. I am clearing a bookshelf at home for mysteries, at least those solved by one remarkable woman detective-psychologist.

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