WHAT MAISIE KNEW

This book is absolutely brutal! It’s a mid-period Henry James novel about a six year old girl whose parents divorce–they get a joint custody, and she’s supposed to spend six months with the father and then six months with the mother. The novel is told in Henry James’ complex, oblique style, but it’s also very close to the girl’s understanding–there’s no special commentary on the events, and you’re mostly only allowed to see and understand the same things that she sees and understands.

It’s just a crazy, devastating novel. No one overtly mistreats the girl, but she’s so clearly an afterthought in her parents’ lives. And you can see the ways in which she is unsettled and left adrift by what’s happening. Both of her parents are adventurers–rootless people who plow through lovers and live without visible means of support–and the care for Maisie quickly devolves onto a bunch of random people who drift through her parents’ lives.

And it’s no even that no one loves the girl. People do (although not her parents). It’s that no one is willing to really be responsible for her. No one is willing to stand up and say, this is a child. This is a person I should protect.

Instead, everyone plays games with her affections, because it’s in some way gratifying for them to have and to hold the adoration of a young girl. And it’s heartbreaking to see the way that she responds to any little bit of love that anyone offers her. For instance, at one point she spends a few minutes talking to a lover of her mother–a man known only as the Captain–who impresses Maisie so much with his kindness (he’s the first person she’s ever met who actually seems to like her mother), that Maisie never forgets about him, even though he literally never reappears in the book again.

In fact, periodically throughout the rest of the book, Maisie will be like, what about the Captain? Is my mom with the Captain? And then Maisie’s caretakers will be like, what? The captain? Your mom left that guy ages ago.

Sigh. I recommend the book. The level of psychological insight (and raw emotion) was just incredible.