Review: The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott

Title: The Little Shadows

Author: Marina Endicott

Published: Allen & Unwin Feb 2012

Synopsis: The Little Shadows revolves around three sisters in the world of vaudeville before and during the First World War. We follow the lives of all three in turn: Aurora, the eldest and most beautiful, who is sixteen when the book opens; thoughtful Clover, a year younger; and the youngest sister, joyous headstrong sprite Bella, who is thirteen. The girls, overseen by their fond but barely coping Mama, are forced to make their living as a singing act after the untimely death of their father. They begin with little besides youth and hope, but Marina Endicott’s genius is to show how the three girls slowly and steadily evolve into true artists even as they navigate their way to adulthood among a cast of extraordinary characters – some of them charming charlatans, some of them unpredictable eccentrics, and some of them just ordinary-seeming humans with magical gifts. Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from February 13 to 16, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia}

My Thoughts:

Having been impressed by Good to a Fault I was delighted to discover The Little Shadows on my doorstep one afternoon (Courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia}. The premise was particularity inviting, promising a backstage glimpse at the life of vaudeville performers in the beginning on 1900’s.
Marina Endicott lifts the curtain to reveal Aurora, Clover, Belle and their mother auditioning to join a vaudeville house. The Avery sisters are young and pretty with sweet voices and their mother, once a performer herself, is prepared to lean on old acquaintances to encourage her daughters success. The life of all but the most successful and talented acts is difficult, performers must fight for their place in the line up to assure continued work but at the whim of the manager, or the audience, they can be dismissed and forced to move on. The Avery’s grow up amongst a motley collection of performers, moving from theatre to theatre in search of their big break and the dream of earning $1000 a week. The Little Shadows follows their career from naive teenage girls to seasoned performers as they navigate their way through success and failure, joy and heartbreak.

With a complete lack of irony, what I loved about The Little Shadows is also what made this novel a bit of a slog to read. Endicott obviously spent a lot of time researching vaudeville at the turn of the 20th century, the details of absolutely everything are exquisitely rendered – from the dank, dusty dressing rooms to the intricacies of a slapstick routine and the fine stitching of delicate costumes. The author breathes life into this hidden world with beautiful imagery that illustrates both the setting and the period in which it takes place. I truly admired the author’s ability to so finely create the Avery’s sisters world, but I also felt that at times, all this detail overshadowed both the plot and the characters.
The story centers on the Avery sisters, Aurora, Clover and Belle who are just 16, 14 and 13 respectively, though lying about their ages, at the beginning of the book. The girls mature in this unusual setting where they must behave as adults even though they are still children.
Aurora is the prettiest with the finest voice and is also the most ambitious of the three. Clover is the quietest, an astute observer of the lifestyle and the characters she encounters. Belle, the youngest, has the personality of the performer, she is effervescent, curious and a bit of a dreamer. Despite their general appeal though, I struggled to connect to their characters. Endicott describes how they put on their makeup, labour over their costumes, learn to sing from their diaphragms but she rarely gives access to their inner thoughts. They are swamped some how but what they are rather than who they are.
Similarly, Endicott describes the other inhabitants of the world of vaudeville in detail, stepping us through their various routines or roles but again, rarely shows us what these characters think or feel.

Endicott intends for the story to be driven by character rather than plot but the lack of direction is frustrating at times. Mostly I felt the book moved from one beautifully described scene to another without really going anywhere at all. I assume the intention was to give the story the structure of a vaudeville show but largely the story failed to come to life when the curtain came down, which is when the real action should have happened.

Though the language was lovely and the book well written, I really wanted to be swept away by The Little Shadows, and it is fascinating for its historical detail and unique setting, but for me, it lacked soul.

I invited Mari from Bookworm With A View  and Judith from Leeswammes Blog to read this book with me as we had previously discussed Good To A Fault. While Judith was unable to join us, Mari enthusiastically agreed and we swapped questions. My answers to Mari are below, please visit Bookworm With A  View to see how Mari answered the questions I had for her and learn what she thought about the book.

1. Did you know much about Vaudeville before reading this novel?
I am a fan of movie musicals like the Ziegfeld Follies, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Gypsy and more recently Chicago, Burlesque and De-Lovely so I am a little familiar with the world, though perhaps a more glamorous version.
2. How did you feel the mother changed from the beginning to the end of the novel?
For much of the novel I didn’t really care for Dora. While I had no doubt she loved her daughters, and I sympathised with her for the loss of her husband and son, the world of vaudeville, and its lure of financial success, was more important to her than the physical and emotional well being of the girls. She made no effort to educate the girls either in schooling (which becomes obvious when Belle is older and writing letters to her sisters) or in risks of vaudeville life. She often turned a blind eye to situations for her own comfort, particularly in the case of Aurora’s marriage.Yet at the same time she works as a waitress in order to allow her daughters to advance their career and begs for the attention of those that can help the girls advance. She glimpses the effects of her ambition on her daughters I think, but never really takes responsibility for it and in the end she is excused by her incapacitation. I think the epilogue proves in the end that both her love for her daughters and her selfish desire for the world of vaudeville is unchanged from the beginning to the end.
3. The three sisters had a tough life after their father dies and their mother decides that a singing act will provide for the family. Were you surprised at the process of navigating through the entertainment world? the process, the lifestyle
I don’t think I was surprised though there were aspects of the vaudeville lifestyle I hadn’t given much thought to like the instability of engagements and the variation in pay and conditions. Perhaps if anything I thought that the performers in vaudeville would have more of a sense of family, but life backstage was more competitive and dark than I expected.
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Watch the interview with Marian Endicott below and make sure you visit her website for some interesting material about vaudeville

 

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Leeswammes
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 20:37:50

    Great review! It was a pity I couldn’t join you and Mari for this book. On the other hand, I have no particular interest in vaudeville so I hope the writing style and the story in general would make for a good book. Now I’m not so sure! I loved Good to a Fault, but have the feeling this book doesn’t quite cut it compared with it.

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  2. Mystica
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 22:43:50

    I’ve read Good to a Fault – this is a new one for me. Making a note of it.

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  3. Kailana
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 02:50:11

    I have this and have been looking forward to it. It is too bad you didn’t enjoy it more, but I am still hoping it will be a worthwhile read for me.

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  4. mpartyka
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 23:33:04

    I think you and I may feel the same about this book… there were parts I enjoyed but I didn’t love this one. The Vaudeville ‘character’ was a little too much for me. I actually thought about putting the book down at one point and may have done this if we were reading it together. In the end, I’m glad I read it.

    Thanks for the read-a-long!

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Feb 29, 2012 @ 10:07:26

      Mari – I know what you mean. A shame such beautiful writing had very little point.

      Thanks for reading it with me! Lets hope the next one we share is much better!

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