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Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

Favorite quote from the book:

“The governess was not much liked in the village. She was too tall, too fond of books, too grave, and, a curious thing, never smiled unless there was something to smile at.”

Clarke is such a charming and witty writer. I feel like every turn of phrase, every twist in a storyline, every quirky description of a character, are all unexpected and delightful.

Ladies is a collection of nine short stories (including the introduction) set in 19th-century England and various fairy-inhabited lands. But then, "short stories" doesn't feel like the right descriptor... they are fairy tales. The first story has cross-over with her novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I have yet to read, but it wasn't necessary to have done so already. I do think, though, that if I'd known ahead of time I would have read that one first, and then this book. But I've also seen a few reviews saying this is a nice lead-in to Strange & Norrell, so who knows!

Each story felt like it was an offshoot of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the real world and the fairy world collide. In fact, Midsummer's Oberon, Titania, and Robin Goodfellow - king & queen of the fairies, and Oberon's fairy servant, also known as Puck - do make an appearance in one of the stories. Queen Mab also appears in another story - queen of the fairies in many folklore stories, and referenced in Romeo & Juliet. There is also a retelling of the Rumpelstilskin tale, and many other mischievous sprites playing tricks on people.

I couldn't help but think back to my summer Shakespeare camp days at the Front Porch Theatre:

Left: At the far left that's me as Queen Mab, in the play Willful Will, written by camp director Carolyn Mann (with friends Dan, Kevin, and... Maron maybe... in 1991)

Right: Harmony and Dan as Titania and Oberon, in A Midsummer Night's Dream (as well as friend Andres as Nick Bottom, with a donkey's head, and I think Eleanor, Teresa, Caedra, and Katie, in 1994).

ANYWAY, back to the book! Having read and been blown away by her most recent novel Piranesi (read my review here), I was primed to love this, and I did. The object itself is also a lovely thing to hold - a cloth-bound, gray hardcover embossed with bright pink morning glories, and illustrations inside for each story, by Charles Vess. This book is fanciful without venturing into "flighty." It's a delight.


UP NEXT: Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin

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