Gregory Maguire is best known in adult fiction circles for Wicked, his
delightfully bittersweet story of the timeless The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked
Witch of the West's point of view. His follow-up to that was Confessions of an
Ugly Stepsister, a re-imagining of the Cinderella fairy tale set in 17th-century
Holland, and a few degrees darker than the first. In Lost, he breaks away from
the formula of those novels, at least to an extent, and moves into the present
with a morose divorced writer whose trip abroad to research a novel is sidetracked by her stepcousin's
mysterious disappearance, eerie goings-on in her ancestral family home in
Hampstead, and her own painful past.
Rudge is an unlikely heroine, a children's book author whose main income derives
from her bestselling adult astrology book The Dark Side of the Zodiac, written pseudonymously and with no belief in its veracity. But sales of her "cash cow"
are drying up, and she's cooking up a novel about a woman named Wendy Pritzke
who's on the trail of Jack the Ripper. She flies from her New England home to
old England to -- at least she tells herself this -- research the story. But
when she arrives at her stepcousin and friend John Comestor's flat in the house
that belonged to her great-great grandfather, a man rumored to have been the
basis for Charles Dicken's Ebenezer Scrooge, she finds John mysteriously absent,
a head-shakingly funny pair of Catholic contractors trying to build a
lease-forbidden stairway to the rooftop from his kitchen, and strange noises and
apparitions emanating from the chimney behind the wall where they're working.
Winnie's half-hearted attempts at research soon take a backseat to the twin
conundrums of John's unexplained absence and the weirdness behind the wall. She
becomes acquainted, if not necessarily friendly, with John's neighbors -- a
dotty old woman downstairs with a flat full of cats and Post-It notes everywhere
to remind her not to forget her pills; an Indian woman with several young
children and a husband who died far too young; and John's on-again, off-again
girlfriend Allegra, who pulls in a surprisingly good living making plaster
castings of children's hands. She's drawn mostly against her will to a supposed
psychic who warns her about the person associated with an ancient shroud she
finds nailed to John's chimney. And all the while, Wendy Pritzke's story is
unfolding in her mind.
Lost takes longer to build up steam than Maguire's previous novels, and its
narrative sometimes runs into dead-ends -- much like Winnie's research and
inquiry into John's disappearance. The book's second half is worth the read, but
one dares say the buildup is unnecessarily slow, and when a spirit possession
becomes the story's main thrust it feels out of place. Maguire, thankfully, is
skilled enough to tie the disparate threads, including her early crashing of a
meeting for prospective international adoptive parents, into a somewhat disheveled bow at
the end. Winnie is deliberately a hard person to know, which will likely put some readers off. But the revelation of the hard truths of her past make the occasional unevenness worth it, because this book is more about her than any of the other mysteries she's trying to solve. Maguire is walking into deeper shadow with each book he writes, it would seem.
Some of the asides concerning menacing or haunted characters from an array of
children's literature will soothe readers hungry for more of what they got in
Wicked or Confessions, but those new to Maguire'
fiction should start earlier in
his body of work.