Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio

 Parlor Games, the debut novel of author Maryka Biaggio, opens with May Dugas on trial.  May, who tells her story, flatters you immediately.  She fawns over the unknown reader of her tale—anyone who will hear her out in the telling of her story—by claiming that your willingness to take the time to hear her out, she can “discern in you the intellect and refinement of a person with an open heart and nimble mind.”   This schmoozing of me as a reader had me suspicious immediately.  And as it turns out, I had a reason to be.  May is a complicated and intense woman who took me on a whirlwind tour of her life.

 The novel alternates between May’s rise to wealth and the trial itself.  May is born in the 1880s in the humdrum town of Menominee, Wisconsin.  She is the product of a hard-working family, but her good looks and clever mind, are wasted on the dull, small town.  Instead, she runs off to Chicago to find her fortune. Predictably, May, like so many other beautiful but poor girls before her, ends up working in a brothel.  But her charm and wit soon attract the attention of wealthy male patrons. 
 Eventually, May is able to make her way out of the bordello and into the arms of a rich young man. Unfortunately for her, the young man’s father hires a detective who dogs her steps and makes the match impossible.  Reed Dougherty, the Pinkerton detective who confronts May, is on her trail throughout the entire novel, and just when it seems that May’s scheming has landed her some small happiness, he reappears to foil her plans again.
The trial that provides the other plot line takes place in 1917.  May is being sued for fraud by Frank Shaver, a good friend.  Shaver is a confidante, sometimes lover, and travelling companion of May.  She claims that she has extended a great deal of money toward May, and she wants it to be paid back.  These scenes were tedious after a while.  If May had been on trial for murder, the story line would have been more compelling.  As the novel progressed, and I got to know May, I had no doubt whatsoever that she was guilty of defrauding her friend.
  May is the kind of woman who the world was not ready for in the early 19th century.  She defied the expectations of women as the weaker sex and clawed her way to the money and status she desired.  She was not averse to using others to meet her objectives and she came across as less than sympathetic.  Since Parlor Games is based upon a real person but the story is clearly fiction, I am unsure of how much of May’s character was constrained by the facts of the historical narrative.   While reading, I was reminded of other novels that are based upon historical people.  Sometimes, in using those facts as plot points, I find that the story is not quite as exciting as I would want.  I often felt as though May just traveled from one bustling city to another to try to find the happiness and wealth that eluded her in her last attempt to hoodwink someone.  It seemed like I was reading the same plot over and over again.
 May is a compelling figure, if unlikable, and Biaggio succeeds in making her interesting enough to read about.  I think that, given the right source material, Biaggio could write another novel about a historical figure that would not have the choppy and repetitive storyline found in Parlor Games.  
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Regina

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