Y’all have heard me bitch about the New York Public Library in the past, and I will probably bitch about it in the future. Here’s the big thing about the New York Public Library, and I will preface this by saying that I am well aware these are problems created by a larger system and a greater number of patrons, rather than some sort of inherent crappiness on the part of the NYPL. I KNOW THAT. The big thing about the New York Public Library that makes me not love it is that I cannot get a large number of books I want at once. In the olden days, I would go to the library with an outsized canvas bag; I would fill it up with books from my TBR list; and then I would go home and read the books I wanted and ignore the books I didn’t want. I cannot generally do this in New York. The New York Public Library has roughly the same selection books that my home library had, but fewer of them are available at any given moment. I have to place holds (takes forever) or accept substitutes (unsatisfying). Boo. I miss my lovely, comfortable home library.
One of the many, many benefits of my old style of library-going was that I really love book sampling. In the evening before bedtime, I would climb into bed with five or six books and start sampling them to get a sense of which one I should read first. I’d read the first twenty or so pages of each, and toss them over the side of the bed if they displeased me. Sampling books in bed is lovely. I did it recently with the largest batch of desirable books I have ever managed to procure from the library in New York, and the big winner of my book sampling was The Observations, a book to which I have been weirdly resistant in the same way that I am nearly always resistant to historical fiction.
The Observations is about a Victorian Irish girl called Bessy who takes a job as a maid in a manor house near Edinburgh. The mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, is generally kind, though she sometimes acts in ways that Bessy can’t understand — angry one second and kind the next; asking Bessy to sit down and stand up, sit and stand, sit and stand, until Bessy refuses to go on. Bewildered, but enjoying the attention, Bessy becomes devoted to her mistress. When she discovers that she’s the subject of Arabella’s study of the behavior of house maids, she comes up with a plan for revenge. What begins as a silly prank spins out of Bessy’s control INTO MADNESS.
Victorians and MADNESS!
(Just wanted to make sure y’all know what’s going on in this book.)
I had a slightly grumbly mindset when I started The Observations, because of my aforementioned, inexplicable mistrust of historical fiction even when a bunch of people have said it is good and even when it is set in a time period I like (wooooo Victorians!) and even when it deals with elements of the time period that are of particular interest to me (VICTORIAN MADNESS!!!!). But it won me over. The best thing about the book is Bessy’s narrative voice. She is funny and pert and a little unreliable, and although she can take care of herself and talks tough, you can see the cracks in her facade.
I’ve probably overstated the role that MADNESS plays in this book, but only because, you know. I like MADNESS in Victorian novels. If you like MADNESS too, this book could be for you! And even if you don’t, Bessy’s narration is so enjoyable that you will probably like it anyway.
My one complaint is that the ending felt too pat. Oh how I hate an unwarrantedly optimistic ending! And that’s what this ending felt like. It wasn’t, like, happy. You would be hard-pressed to call it a happy ending. Some grim things occur. Some grim revelations are revealed. But still the ending made me feel like the author was asking me to be happier than I wanted to be. I was rendered contrary by this. I was all like, Quit it, Jane Harris! I’ll feel how I want to feel!
Other reviews are findable here! I wish I could remember who recommended The Observations to me in the first place, so that I could say thank you. I have been intending to read it forever and ever, and at last I finally did.