sarah montambo is not a mouse.
but shelley and her mother are doormats.
very bright, but by whatever fluke of nature or nurture, passive, timid, and the type to scurry away from any conflict: mice.
shelley is bullied at school. and i mean BULLIED. by her former best friends, turned in late adolescence into a pack of vicious bitches. it goes beyond dog-poop in the bag and hair-pulling, this, and culminates in an act that is so horrific, even cast-iron stomach karen had to take a moment. is it over the top and hard to believe? maybe, but it’s a book, and you hear things these days about bullying, and how creative and sick kids can be, so just go with it.
her mother, elizabeth, was some sort of hotshot lawyer until her husband, also a lawyer, got jealous of her success and suggested she stay at home and raise shelley. which she did. after he leaves her for a woman thirty years younger than himself and moves to spain, cutting off all contact with the two of them, elizabeth is left alone with her out-of-date legal training, and is forced to take a humiliating job at a firm where her skills are recognized in every way but financially, and she ends up basically being a secretary, but doing most of the work for the senior partners and being sexually harassed and taken advantage of at every turn. again, somewhat unrealistic that such a talented, intelligent woman would give up everything to cater to her husband’s will, but again—just go with it. it happens.
these are mice, after all.
elizabeth is so conditioned to sacrificing her own desires and retreating from conflict that she can’t even tell her own mother that the gaudy china knick-knacks she keeps giving her as presents are unwanted, and displays them in what must be a horrifying tableau of little dolphins and and hedgehogs and milkmaids.
she can’t stand up to the movers who damage her piano and overcharge her and leave cigarette butts all over the yard, crudely laughing at her the whole time.
and she definitely can’t help shelley fight back, legally or physically, against her attackers, despite the severity of the attack, which leaves her horrifically scarred. the school is unwilling to expel the girls, and the police refuse to press charges, and the two of them just accept this and turn inwards, retreating from all but each other.
the most heartbreaking passage to me came in the letter from the school, and shelley’s outraged reaction to a typo:
All three girls “strenuously denied” waging a “bullying campain” (misspelt!) against me and “disclaimed all knowledge” of the “unfortunate incident” on the twenty-third of October.
her reaction to that misspelling; that they didn’t even care enough to proofread the letter, punched my heart a little.
the result of this attack is that shelley withdraws from school, to be tutored at home, and the two of them move to a very remote cottage in the middle of nowhere, where they can hide out and create a kind of mother-daughter sanctuary: playing duets on piano and flute, reading together, tending to the garden and fixing lavish meals. a perfect refuge for two mice to feel safe, all cozy fireplace and mugs of tea.
but then, one night, their sanctum is violated, and suddenly, they are forced out of their mouselike states in order to protect what is theirs.
what follows is a fantastic psychological exploration of what happens once the cracks start to form. it’s like when you’re poisoning the water supply, you know, and you don’t know at the time just how far your poison will flow. there are unseen repercussions both internal and external, and a lot of smooth authorial moves i didn’t see coming.
this is a fast-paced and well-told thriller. it has characters you feel for even when you want to yell at them to grow a pair. (to which yelling they would once have shrank, but now might have a different reaction, so look out). it does get a teensy bit over the top sometimes, but there is an attention to detail that i appreciated, and some good ooky scenes.
if he writes another book, i will read that book.