Friday, December 29, 2017

Cinderella or Pygmalion?

Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict


Clara Kelly was not who everyone thought she was, and this accident of mistaken identity lands her the position of lady’s maid in one of the wealthiest homes in all Pittsburgh, that of the Carnegie family. If Clara is to help her family back in Ireland, then keeping up appearances is what she’ll have to do, even when Mrs. Carnegie’s eldest son Andrew starts to treat her not like a household employee, but as an equal and maybe something more.



At first glance, this looks like a classic Cinderella story, but on closer inspection, we see many divergences. Cinderella wanted to free herself from her terrible family, and Clara hopes to some day reunite with hers. Cinderella let her emotions carry her away, but Clara does everything she can to keep hers in check. More importantly, Cinderella had very few ambitions of her own and it seems she left her fate to others, while Clara knows she can rely only upon herself to survive, and possibly one day thrive in this new world. Finally, Cinderella was transformed from a poor peasant into a princess by a man, but Clara is forced to transform herself to improve her life and the lives of her family. With all these differences, perhaps this is the opposite of a Cinderella story, except for the fact that both come from nothing and end up with something better.

On second thought, maybe this is more like a Pygmalion story than Cinderella one. If we go back to the Greek mythology of Pygmalion, we know this is the story of a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues, who the gods bring to life so the two can marry. Of course, it is the sculptor whose name is Pygmalion, and not the statue, but that’s beside the point. The parallel here in Benedict’s story is that Clara begins to come out of her shell when she begins studying the Carnegie businesses and Andrew begins to help her with her investigations, and later consult with her on these topics. However, unlike in Ovid’s tale, but closer to George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name, we understand from the prologue of Benedict’s book that Andrew and Clara do not end up as a couple. Where Benedict combines the two is in how both Clara and Andrew end up transformed in one way or another through their association with each other.

Of course, it is less important to decide if this is a Cinderella story, a Pygmalion story, both or neither, than it is to see how carefully Benedict draws out this story. When it comes to this, I have to say that Benedict did a perfectly lovely job. We love Clara because she is strong, principled, while at the same time, willing to do almost anything to save her family. We admire Andrew because he’s that self-made, self-taught man who started with nothing and struggled to become one of the wealthiest people in the world. Even so, neither of them are perfect; Clara knows she’s living a lie, and Andrew’s affluence seems to have made him forget where he came from. Benedict melds these two characters – her fictional Clara and what she’s garnered about the real-life Carnegie – into a tale that is both charming and heartwarming, while at the same time, poignant. More importantly, Benedict lets you have empathy for Andrew, despite his faults, so that the emotional connection between him and Clara makes perfect sense.

I also found that although the story takes place in the mid-1800s, Benedict carefully highlights many things that are very relevant to today’s world, some of which borders on political commentary – in particular, class struggles, inequitable wealth distribution, and how money and power sometimes blind the affluent to the socioeconomic troubles around them which their greed often causes. Although this might sound like Benedict takes up a preaching soap-box, in fact, the style of the prose here is anything but that. Benedict uses language here in a very measured way, to build up an atmosphere of wariness that slides between guarded hope and discernible anxiety, without ever getting either maudlin or miserable.

Overall, I found this a very absorbing and enjoyable read. Benedict is a very talented writer with a gentle style, who has given us a book that isn’t overly heavy or romantic, has a very good balance of historical fact and creative fiction, with carefully developed, sympathetic characters and a well-rounded, believable story. The only thing that kept this from being perfect for me was at the very end. However, since I don’t give away any spoilers, I’ll leave it to say that I can warmly recommend this book and happily give it four and a half stars out of five. (Now I want to read Benedict’s first novel, “The Other Einstein” even more than I did before.)




Sourcebooks Landmark will release "Carnegie’s Maid" by Marie Benedict on January 16, 2018. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
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