Friday, September 14, 2012


Charles Dickens
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz felt like such a departure for the Newbery Medalist. When I got to interview her recently, I asked her how she arrived at this Gothic tale of puppetry, magic, mystery and obsession.

“Whenever I finish a book, I’m sure I’ll never write another,” Schlitz said. “So, I thought, ‘I should write from my obsessions. What do I love?’ The answer was Charles Dickens, and marionettes.” The author followed her obsessions, and she also created characters with obsessions of their own. Cassandra the witch can’t live with her fire opal, and can’t seem to live without it. Magician and puppeteer Grisini’s relationship with money and magic is much the same.

Schlitz’s obsession with Dickens comes through in more overt ways—the orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall (under Grisini’s guardianship), the London setting and the establishment of several characters’ plot lines that lead to a climactic intersection. But there are also more subtle connections to the Victorian writer. Schlitz visited Dickens’s house. She could picture him in his red waistcoat dashing up and down the stairs. “It’s an old staircase, so they have a decline in the middle of the tread,” she recalled. “People thought him vulgar because he wore a red waistcoat.”

Stairs factor into Splendors and Glooms when Grisini falls down the staircase of his boarding house, when Clara Wintermute’s father ascends the stairs of Grisini’s boarding house in search of his kidnapped daughter and meets Lizzie Rose, and the stairs in Cassandra’s house also play a key role for conversations overheard and narrow escapes. The scenes on the stairs often serve as transitions in the novel, resulting in a change of heart or luck (both good and bad, depending on which character you are) or a moment of insight.

The sense of obsession permeates the novel: Cassandra at her mirror, surrounded by images of former owners of the fire opal engulfed in flames, Mrs. Wintermute so consumed by grief at her other children’s death from cholera that she neglects Clara, and Grisini’s obsession with power gained through magic and money. And of course, the puppets. Cassandra, a puppet to her fire opal, Clara a puppet to her parents in a home filled with death masks and devoid of laughter, and Parsefall’s obsession with the marionettes, practicing and practicing in his desire to be as facile with the puppets as Grisini is.

Most importantly, Laura Amy Schlitz’s obsessions led to this compulsively readable novel. Which only goes to prove that following one’s obsession, or--perhaps more accurately--passion can lead to positive ends.

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