It's almost impossible to review Who Is Maud Dixon? without letting some spoilers slip. Mostly mild spoilers, I mean, about the character development and my intense book feelings while reading, not a total plot reveal. But still! If you're the kind of reader who doesn't like hints before you read, skip this review.
This is your spoiler alert!
In the beginning of Who Is Maud Dixon?, by Alexandra Andrews, Florence is new to New York and new to publishing, discovering constantly just how much she doesn't understand. She wants to be a writer, but the prep-school Manhattan literary crowd has their own language and culture, and it's not something she learned in Florida. In the beginning, she reminds me a bit of Louise in Social Creature. painfully aware that she's a struggling outsider in the city, and willing to do whatever she needs to do. You learn exactly what Florence wants and what she's willing to do to get it early on. When a higher-up hookup think he can take advantage of her, she awkwardly attempts blackmail for a publishing in. It's just as cringey and as ballsy as that sounds.
I already love this sort of snark at Manhattan pretensions, and I was sold on Florence about 5 pages in. There's just so much wanting in her, with no path to getting what she wants. She's now come too far to ever fit back into her Florida hometown, and she doesn't match her mother's ideas of success. We don't actually read any of Florence's writing, but it's clear it's sophomoric and unformed, and man, that tragedy of gaining just enough skill and understanding to realize you're unskilled is sympathetic.
Maud Dixon is the pen name of this season's literary success story. Her debut novel is a dark Southern gothic with a shocking murder at its heart, and everyone is reading it. There is a murderous character named Maud in the novel, leading to hints that it's actually true, but no one has been able to match the fictional murder to a police log or court case. While the Manhattan literati may love guessing and gossiping, no one really knows who she is, or even if the real Maud is a she. This really set me up to believe this was a literary suspense, like maybe Maud was really a character we met in other circumstances, so I was stunned when the story went in an even darker way.
When Maud's literary agent floats the possibility of a job as Maud's assistant, Florence leaps at the chance. Florence is sure that working for a brilliant author will improve her writing and her publishing world connections. This is the real genius of Who Is Maud Dixon? because the scenes of the two women in living and working in upstate New York are both lovely literary inspiration and creepy rural isolation.
"Maud" has remade herself from her Mississippi background, just as Florence longs to do. Florance can really see Maud's success here, as a cultured, successful bestselling author, but it's also somewhat lonely. I rarely enjoy books that are told through texts or letters (ugh, just tell the story, don't make me decode it) but I enjoyed the look into Maud's life through her emails. Maybe because we only see a few of them, or maybe because they're so revealing. Maud seeks a loner in Florence, but her emails and lack of connections to others show an eerie similarity.
When I read the kind of intense thrillers where the action is motivated by a character's obsessive love, I really have to be sold on the relationship, or I start quibbling with it. Other thoughts creep in, like does the protag know how many attractive men are out there? So maybe quit single-mindedly stalking this one and try a bar or something. In Who Is Maud Dixon?, like in The Plot, the motivation for some of the characters' dangerous choices comes from chasing creative and career dreams, which I guess I accepted more easily (please no psychoanalysis). Then another layer comes from needing to keep things secret, and what the character is willing to do to keep secrets, and that always works for me as motivation and a source of tension. In this book, we see two characters who are both willing to do anything to escape their backgrounds.
This was exactly what I like to read in a suspense novel, because I felt like I knew "Maud" enough to know something wasn't right, but I couldn't guess the details, I knew Florence enough to understand what she wanted, but I didn't know her well enough to guess how far she would go for it.
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