Monday, February 18, 2013

Parlor Games: Review

Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio is a sweeping piece of historical fiction based on real-life adventuress, May Dugas aka the Baroness May de Vries (and various aliases). The story opens with May settling in for a trial accusing her of extortion--bilking her friend Miss Frank Gray Shaver out of her inheritance. Sandwiched in between scenes from the courtroom drama, May tells us the story of her life--all the adventures that led up to her appearance in court in January 1917.

May's father dies fairly early in her life and she decides to set out for Chicago in the hopes of earning enough money to support her family. But Chicago in the late 1800s is not welcoming to a young woman with no skills and she soon finds herself a courtesan in the city's most infamous bordello. Taking what she learns there, she uses her great beauty and feminine charms to encourage her gentlemen to bestow gifts upon her.  It looks like her dreams are coming true when she makes friends with two young women from Chicago's high society and is introduced to a financially secure young man. She can already hear the wedding bells ringing when Reed Dougherty, a Pinkerton detective, spoils her nuptial plans. It won't be the last time that Dougherty pops up at the most inopportune moment.

From Chicago May works her way around the world to Portland and San Francisco to Shanghai and Holland to London and Hong Kong. She goes from the top of the world and the riches of her dreams while married to the Baron to moments of despair when Dougherty foils her plans. She goes through money like water and winds up mixed up in politics, insurance fraud, scandalous affairs, wartime speculations, and various legal proceedings.  The Pinkerton Agency eventually dubs her the "most dangerous woman in the world"--accusing her of being a blackmailer and a heartless seducer of the wealthiest of men.  

This is May's story--told in the first person as she goes on trial for extortion--and she asks the reader to be her judge. She asks us to believe that she is completely honest in her narration and for us to deliver judgment on what we read. Is she the cold hearted swindler who breaks hearts even as she empties bank accounts or have her actions been justified?

On the one hand, this is a fascinating look at the late 19th/early 20th centuries in America.  Showing the reader what life was like for young women without money and without decent job prospects--not that I believe for a moment that May would have wanted to stick to a regular job if it had been available to her.  I just can't see her working at the same job for years on end.  That girl was born wanting money--and lots of it.  Biaggo's writing style is spot on--May's voice is distinctive and draws the reader right in.  I easily finished the book in two days (less when you consider that there was sleeping and chores and work that had to be attended to).  But....I can't say that liked May.  If the goal was to convince me that May's actions were justified over the course of her tale, then I'm afraid the mission failed. May strikes me as unscrupulous and out for herself with the final chapter forcefully driving that home.  The only point where I really felt for her was when she lost her Johnny, but I'm still not convinced that her heart was nearly as broken as she would have us believe.  Three stars for a solid tale, interesting historical detail, and terrific narration.

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