Puppets, magic, mourning, and redemption compromise this Victorian-era tale. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall work for the puppet master, Grisini, a man whose talent with puppets is only surpassed by his cruelty. The small troupe is invited to perform at Clara Wintermute's birthday party, despite her parents hesitation. But when Clara shows absolute joy at the performance, even though the house is in a prolonged mourning period, her mother becomes quite angry and speaks words out of rage. Then Clara goes missing the next day, and all eyes are on Grisini and his two wards. What has actually happened to Clara is beyond belief and how she ends up saving Lizzie Rose and Parsefall from the scheming Madama and her evil fire opal is incredible as well. This is a long, detailed journey, but with each chapter told by a different narrator and so many complex characters to examine, determined readers will find an enchanting and unforgettable story here.
That's the short review. The School Library Journal review, if you will. That's what's on my Goodreads, but let's really talk about Splendors and Glooms. WARNING: I try very hard not to give too much away, but with so much going on in this book, some important parts might slip.
Let's talk about each character in turn. Clara is a passionate, excitable girl living in the wrong time period. She wants to be and do so much, but because her siblings have passed, she must instead live with survivor's guilt and try to be the perfect child. Lizzie Rose was once a lady of the theatre and she is good and pure of heart, so living on the streets with Grisini does not suit her caring, generous nature. Parsefall is a street rat and actually prefers to live that way, although he was once loved so dearly that he is afraid to be loved again. Madama is conflicted, the very thing that is giving her power is killing her, yet she knows that she stole it, and that weighs on her conscience. That she is given redemption just before her passing is incredible, and really shows the humanity in the story. Dr. Wintermute was silent when his children died, but he becomes active when Clara disappears. He refuses to mourn any longer, and of all the characters, I believe that he changed the most. Meanwhile, Grisini did not change at all. He was evil to start and evil to finish, but that Lizzie Rose saw to end his torture shows that at least she saw something worthy in him.
The setting was clear and beautiful. Many writers have examined a dirty and dark London in the late 1800's, and Schlitz does not break any new ground here, but her description of Strachan's Ghyll is quite wonderful. With the crumbling tower, dark woods, and crisp winter air, there was much to discover.
Let's talk about popularity. This could create some Newbery buzz. I would honestly rather see this with a medal than Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, but alas, it likely won't happen. This book will be a hard sell. It's long, slow, and very descriptive. Like I said, it will take a determined reader to get through this book. I do think, however, that this would make an excellent read aloud, not just for children, but adults as well. Why not take this to a nursing home and read a few chapters? It's a fairy tale, and you are never too old for fairy tales. Libraries will certainly carry this book, but it won't get great checkouts, and I highly doubt that it makes the Caudill list either, but it is certainly lovely and I'm glad to own it.
Overall, I would recommend Splendors and Glooms to adults needing a lighter period story and to solid readers that would like to read something with a little weight.