Splendors and Glooms was a surprise. I had started it on three separate occasions and couldn’t get into it. I kept seeing it on book and reader lists so I made myself try again. I still feel it takes too long to get into the story but I am glad I finally did.
It takes place in Victorian London (late 1800’s). Clara is the daughter of a wealthy doctor and his wife; her four siblings have died from cholera several years before the start of the story. Her parents’ grief over the loss of their other children have caused them to pull far away from Clara. She is extremely lonely and oppressed by the suffocating sorrow that persists in the household. When she sees the performance of Gaspare Grisini, the puppet master, in the park she begs her parents to hire him to entertain at her approaching birthday party.
They agree but Clara has an ulterior motive: she has seen the child apprentices who work with Grisini and–desperate for the companionship of other children–longs to invite them to visit with her. She must hide this, however, from her parents as these children are far beneath their social stature and as such are inappropriate guests for Clara to have in her home as anything but servants.
We soon discover that Grisini, the puppeteer, is an evil, greedy man with ulterior motives of his own. There is also–lurking in the background at the beginning of the story–Cassandra, a powerful witch with a dark connection to Grisini. Clara’s fateful encounter with Grisini and the children who work for him(Lizzie Rose and Parsefall) have dire, life-changing consequences for them all–as well as Cassandra and Clara’s parents.
The story unfolds by turns through the eyes of Lizzie Rose, Cassandra and Clara with occasional snatches from Parsefall and Dr. Wintermute (Clara’s father). It runs the gamut from pulse-pounding danger to heart-squeezing grief to the inspiring kindness and courage of children. I ended up completely engrossed in the journeys of all the characters. My 11-year-old son was often in the back seat of the car while I was listening to Splendors and Glooms on audiobook and would ask to keep the car running when we arrived at our destination so he could listen “a little bit more.” Two weeks ago he found a used copy at the bookstore, bought it and is reading it in his room before bed every night.
The fact that a story set in Victorian London without spies or robots or even one fart joke has so entranced an 11-year-old boy speaks more to the appeal and quality of Splendors and Glooms than I can! Pick up Splendors and Glooms, stick with it through the first few chapters and get lost inside it in the best possible way.
ONE CAUTION: There is an incident of particularly violent abuse of a child in one later section that I found difficult to get through and is NOT appropriate for a reader younger than at least 10 years.