Review: Mad Miss Mimic by Sarah Henstra

Title Mad Miss Mimic
Author Sarah Henstra
Published May 5th, 2015 by Penguin Canada
Pages 272 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Received an advance reader copy from the publisher for review (Thanks Penguin Canada!), Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

London, 1872 – Seventeen-year-old heiress Leonora Somerville is preparing to be presented to upper-class society – again. She’s strikingly beautiful and going to be very rich, but Leo has a problem money can’t solve: A curious speech disorder causes her to stutter and also allows her to imitate other people’s voices flawlessly. Servants and ladies alike call her “Mad Miss Mimic” behind her back…and watch as Leo unintentionally scares off one potential husband after another.

London is a city gripped by opium fever. Leo’s brother-in-law, Dr. Dewhurst, and his new business partner, Francis Thornfax, are front-runneds in the race to patent an injectable form of the drug. Friendly, forthright, and, as a bonus, devastatingly handsome, Thornfax seems immune to the gossip about Leo’s “madness”. But their courtship is endangered from the start. The mysterious Black Glove opium gang is setting off explosives across the city. The street urchins Dr. Dewhurst treats are dying of overdoses. And then there is Tom Rampling, the working-class boy Leo can’t seem to get off her mind.

As the violence closes in around her, Leo must find the links among the Black Glove’s attacks, Tom’s criminal past, the doctor’s dangerous cure, and Thornfax’s political ambitions. But first, she must find her voice.

There are things I cannot say in any voice.
I was born Leonora Emmaline Somerville, but I am not at all sure that is still who I am.

Seventeen-year-old Leonora Emmaline Somerville is known by many names, though few are her own. Stumbletongue. Gargle. Crippletongue. Mutemouth. And, of course, the eponymous Mad Miss Mimic. Born with a speech impediment that makes speaking without a stammer a virtual impossibility, Leonora involuntarily developed an alternate persona that allows her to perfectly mimic another’s voice, inflection and mannerisms. This ability, which allows her to use another’s voice when her own has failed her, is an object of comfort to herself, shame to her sister and equal parts curiosity and horror to polite society at large. Most importantly of all, however, it appears to be an impediment to her future. Despite an abundance of beauty and the promise of a large inheritance, after one social season in town and no engagement to speak of, it seems as though no suitor will be able to look past Miss Somverille’s rather unique abilities. Enter Mr. Francis Thornfax. A merchant seaman and business partner to her brother-in-law, Daniel Dewhurst, Mr. Thornfax is handsome, refined, and seemingly unconcerned with Leonora’s mimicry and speech disorder. His subsequent attentions are both flattering and tantalizing as they hold within them the promise of marriage and the coinciding independence and status Leonora has long desired. If only she were not so preoccupied with the skilled hands and sharp mind of Daniel’s physician assistant, the inventive and enigmatic Tom Rampling. As the battle for her heart begins, another is being waged on the streets of London and in the halls of parliament as devastating attacks by the mysterious Black Glove gang escalate and the debate regarding the importation of opium into England continues. Leonora will need to harness the strength and power of her voice if she is to navigate the tumultuous waters of political corruption, substance abuse, familial discord and romantic entanglements that threaten to drown her, lest she be silenced, once and for all.

So there it is, my secret, my scandal: Mad Miss Mimic. The name is apt enough, for it comes on me like a madness at times, so that I say things I don’t truly understand, or would never say if I could stop myself. But here is another secret, even more scandalous: Mimic is my secret joy. She emerges like a bubble bursting in the head, a glimmering behind the eyes. She floats up from the belly to the tongue. She is a latch opening in my heart. The words pour out of me freely without the slightest thought or effort. The shame comes only afterward – When I realize whom I have hurt or frightened, who has been shocked or disgusted by my performance. Who will never look at me the same way again.

If there’s one thing over twenty years of extensive reading experience has taught me, it’s what I do (and don’t) search for in the novels I read. So, when I was approached by Penguin Canada and offered the opportunity to read and review Sarah Henstra’s 2015 historical fiction debut, Mad Miss Mimic, about an intelligent, spirited heroine with a speech impediment set during the Victorian era, I knew it was the book for me. The fact that this novel also allowed me a rare opportunity to celebrate Canadian literature was a delightful and unexpected bonus. It was therefore with eager anticipation and high hopes that I began Mad Miss Mimic and I was happily not disappointed. Smart, sophisticated, and unerringly satisfying, Mad Miss Mimic reminds readers that there is no age limit on an exceptional story.

I wasn’t suited to this. I couldn’t possibly bring it off. At best I was a fool in motley, a jester with his bag of amusements, speaking nonsense. At worst I was a madwoman. What I could never hope to be was a lady. My extravagant gown, the paint and powder – I felt as if the mask were slipping, leaving me stripped bare, naked and defenceless as a babe.

Much like a great number of women during the Victorian era, Leonora Somerville is a girl trapped and silenced by forces largely beyond her control, though her circumstances are admittedly a little more curious than most. Perhaps what makes our protagonist most interesting are the dichotomous forces that exist within her. Leonora is shy, sensitive and modest, eager to direct attention away from herself and her unique ability. Mimic, however, is vastly different. When Leonora dons the mantle of her alternate persona, however involuntary though this action may be, she is a girl transformed. Mimic is confident, outgoing and self-assured, allowing Leonora a voice when she would otherwise have none and the ability to express herself in a wholly uninhibited manner. These two opposing identities and Leonora’s keen awareness of them allow for an endlessly interesting and complex character study, as our protagonist can be perceived as everything from manipulative and cunning to bright and adaptable. No matter the interpretation, however, there is absolutely no doubt that Sarah Henstra has created a compelling, complicated character with whom one can’t help but sympathize and cheer for.

Perhaps Mr. Thornfax would give me anything I wanted, I considered. But I hadn’t the faintest idea what that might be. I glanced at his broad hand resting on his knee and caught myself comparing it to Tom Rampling’s pale, quick-fingered hand. It made me feel disloyal, but then I could not decide whether the guilt was for Tom or for Mr. Thornfax. Self-consciousness knifed a gulf between Mimic, winning and pliant, and the shrinking, uncomfortable girl who hid within.

Handsome, confident and gregarious, Francis Thornfax gives every appearance of being the perfect gentlemen and suitor, whose interest appeals to the part of Leonora that wishes to be seen, heard, and accepted not in spite of her speech impediment and mimicry, but because of it. In fact, Thornfax is seemingly unconcerned with the parts of Leonora’s self that have long labeled her a social outcast and object of mockery. His attentions are flattering and the promise of a potential marriage holds within it the largest measure of independence a woman could hope for during the period in question. Perhaps most importantly of all, a union with Thornfax would mean an escape from her sister’s cruel, dictatorial rule and the suffocating confinement at Hastings House. Despite all this, however, Leonora can’t help but find herself attracted to the reticent Tom Rampling, whose ambiguous intentions, quick mind and sensitive touch far exceed the allure of the protection and freedom that a husband in good standing could potentially provide. With head and heart in conflict, Leonora’s decision is further complicated as new information is revealed about both men, who are often anything but what they seem. Some readers may balk at the implication of a love triangle, as Leonora’s attentions are initially split between both Francis and Tom. That said, there’s no cause for concern as there is little, if any, doubt as to with whom Leonora’s true affections lie. While I couldn’t help but wish for greater development in both relationships, particularly that between Leonora and Tom, ultimately the novel’s romance left me smiling and satisfied as I turned the final page. In addition to Leonora’s romantic interests, the secondary cast is further complemented by a number of other captivating characters including (but not limited to) Leonora’s supportive and empowered Aunt Emmaline, a former stage actress, and her flamboyant and often meddlesome cousin, Archibald Mavety, a journalist in desperate search of his next big story.

“The lines are all blurred,” I said, in a perfect imitation of Archie. Then I switched back to Leonora’s voice. “‘Tis the same for me, I suppose: a series of overlapping roles.”
“But which one is you? Which is the true Miss Somerville?”
I laughed and saw my cousin wince a little: there was no humour in the brittle, weary sound. I looked down at Harlequin in my lap, stroked his checkered belly, and scraped my fingernail over the enamelled teardrop on his cheek. As near as I could tell, the true Miss Somerville no longer existed.

At a relatively brief 272 pages, Mad Miss Mimic makes the most of every single syllable as Sarah Henstra expertly blends history, mystery, and romance to form a winning combination that promises to entice readers with a vast array of interests. The author’s narrative voice is rich and elegant, managing to recall the style and refinement of classic Victorian literature while simultaneously remaining accessible and easy to understand for a younger, contemporary audience. From the opulence of Hastings House and the Royal Opera to the destitution and depravity of the Seven Dials district, Henstra brings the period to life with evocative detail. There are moments when the plot borders on predictable and Leonora’s condition strains credulity with little-to-no explanation as to its origins or limitations but this is no way detracts from the reader’s enjoyment of the story as Leonora hurtles headfirst through an endless, tangled web of corruption, conspiracy and conflict. While selfishly I wish the novel were a touch longer to allow the author the opportunity to build up a greater level of tension, as it stands Mad Miss Mimic acts as a wonderful introduction to the historical fiction genre, thanks to the novel’s relative brevity, impeccable research and Henstra’s deft hand and creative concept.

Aunt Emmaline says your story determines who you are. Well, I suppose I am now come to the end of mine. It is remarkable how the human body will knit itself back together, no matter how tattered the human heart.

Whether enjoyed on a crisp fall evening with a warm cup of tea or while kicking one’s heels up at the beach on a balmy summer afternoon, Sarah Henstra’s irresistible 2015 debut is a rip-roaring adventure that historical fiction enthusiasts will not want to miss. Fans of Sharon Biggs Waller’s A Mad, Wicked Folly in particular are sure to enjoy this thrilling, romantic, and inventive romp through Victorian London in which the complexity of the plot, the creativity of the concept, and the thoroughly loveable protagonist all coalescence to create an exciting, engaging story that readers can happily devour in a matter of hours. While I question whether or not Mad Miss Mimic will leave a distinct, lasting impression, I delighted in this wholly unique reading experience, and would not hesitate to recommend it to fellow historical fiction fans.

Please Note: All quotations included in this review have been taken from an advance reader copy and therefore might be subject to change.

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Sam @ Bellsie Books wrote “If you like spunky Victorian heroines (which I do), I highly recommend this one.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Helen @ CanLit for Little Canadians wrote “…With Sarah Henstra’s brilliant characterizations and historical setting, the mystery and an unexpected and sweet romance at its core, Mad Miss Mimic reveals the need for voices to be given the freedom for expression if life is to be worth living.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Angel @ Mermaid Vision Books wrote “It all comes together in a novel that isn’t quite as strong as it could have been, but still maintains a solid foundation and has a charming protagonist to carry the story.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

3 Responses

  1. I’ve seen this here and there, but I didn’t remember–or even know?–what it was about until I read your review. And you have me SOLD. I’ve only read a bit of historical fiction–CODE NAME VERITY, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY (also sold on that comparison), to name a few–but what I’ve read I’ve really, really liked, and they’ve defied what I originally thought about historical fiction: that it’d be boring. This sounds really good, and I love how it seems like Leonora/Mimic are like Jekyll/Hyde, and of course the romance sounds intriguing as well. I’ve read a book or two where the character had a random speech impediment, but nothing like this, I think, and it sounds super interesting and unique. And it doesn’t hurt that it has such a pretty cover. I didn’t have much interest in this before expect for adding it on Goodreads, but now I want to read it. Excellent review!

  2. This sounds really lovely! You’ve done such a great job of highlighting it’s strengths and weaknesses, Jen. I adore this cover and am equally intrigued by the premise, so I hope that I get the chance to read it at some point. It’s a shame that the story needs a bit more development overall, but I’m still interested in meeting these characters! 🙂
    Hannah @ So Obsessed With recently posted…July 2015: Recap + On My ShelvesMy Profile

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!