London, 1872. Seventeen-year-old heiress Leonora Somerville is preparing to be presented to 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 but 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 in 1872 is also a city gripped by opium fever. Leo’s brother-in-law Dr. Dewhurst and his new business partner Francis Thornfax are frontrunners in the race to patent an injectable formula 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 explosions across the city. The street urchins Dr. Dewhurst treats are dying of overdose. 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 between 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.
Tell Me More: At first glance, Mad Miss Mimic might seem a little off-kilter, stuffed just a little too full of historical premises to stand firmly on its own. There’s the drama of courtship, the dangers of the opium trade, and the struggles of not being able to use one’s voice, literally. 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.
Leonora Somerville–Leo, for short–is a genuinely lovely character. She knows herself and knows what the world is like, and while she experiences self-doubt like any other teenage girl, it’s never powerful enough to really stop her from pursuing what she believes in. I loved that the novel gave her room to breathe and let her test her boundaries, and that ultimately she was doing what she wanted to do with her life. Her loneliness is never played off as a weakness, but as a natural result of the isolation she’s been forced to live with, and the discouragement from people who should be her biggest champions.
It’s not surprising then that when Leo seems to find an ally in Francis Thornfax, she wants to believe he’s telling the truth about liking her for who she is. She’s not gullible so much as she is hopeful, and Sarah Henstra ties that hope to Leo’s bigger character arc. She doesn’t need to defeat the people around her to succeed. She just needs to see herself as a worthy person on her own.
Where Mimic falls short is the romance and conflict. Unpredictable Tom Rampling is an obvious foil to Thornfax’s more assured, confident hero, and his social standing keeps him from being a natural choice for Leo’s affections, at least in the eyes of her guardians. There wasn’t enough tension to make me doubt that Tom and Leo would end up together, or at least come to an understanding about their feelings for each other. I just wasn’t surprised by how their relationship played out, and that kept me from enjoying how it was built up.
The romance may have also been affected by everything else happening in the book.
…Leo must find the links between the Black Glove’s attacks, Tom’s criminal past, the doctor’s dangerous cure, and Thornfax’s political ambitions.
There’s a lot going on in Mad Miss Mimic, and not a whole lot of time to process everything. 272 pages feel too short to really give all of these plot points room to breathe and develop. There were several chapters that I had to reread to make sure I hadn’t missed a clue or lost some key information in the dialogue. The historical details were lovely, but I didn’t feel like I had time to savour them and let them recreate Leo’s world in my head.
The Final Say: My wish for a slower pace aside, Mad Miss Mimic is a sound historical novel, and its protagonist a refreshing and realistic young woman. I would happily recommend it to readers beginning to explore historical fiction, and those looking for a book reminiscent of The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
Sarah Henstra is an English professor at Ryerson University. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.