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From Phyllida's Desk

Review of Nora Olsen's Maxine Wore Black

Maxine Wore BlackMaxine Wore Black by Nora Olsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It takes a gifted writer like Nora Olsen to pull off a mash-up like this. From the reviews so far, it appears that Daphne du Maurier's timeless classic Rebecca (1938) has reached its sell-by date. Too bad, because if you haven't read it (or even heard of it) and are unfamiliar with its iconic gothic plot, you're not going to get Maxine.

Du Maurier's work is set in a time and place when a young, under-educated, insecure middle-class girl could marry a masterful, older, aristocratic widower with a mansion in Cornwall and a perfect, beautiful--and dead--young wife, and expect that somehow this could work out. By 1938 this was already a dubious proposition, and that's what made the book a bestseller. Rebecca is romantic suspense, not required to end happily-ever-after, and I'm not going to spoil it here. Read Rebecca first (the 1940 movie with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine is pretty damn good too, but you really need to read the book). It's not hard. You won't be able to put it down, I promise, unless you're so young that the English of early-twentieth-century popular fiction is like Chaucer's English for me: poetic and beautiful on the page, but a foreign language. Then read Maxine and tell me that Olsen isn't just about the most brilliant writer today casting her prodigious pearls before the swinish readers of YA fiction. (Yeah, I'm old and prejudiced. Get off my lawn.)

These days, of course, a young woman as insecure and self-effacing as du Maurier's narrator, whose name we never learn, would not be sympathetic. Readers would not identify with her and would be uninterested in her plight: in love with a romantic, brooding older man who seems contemptuous of her even as he proposes marriage, and consumed with jealousy of the seemingly flawless first wife whose spirit still rules at Manderley, her husband's manor house in Cornwall.

Olsen's clever solution is to make her heroine the one kind of female whose insecurities and self-doubts modern readers will (or should) find sympathetic: a transgender woman who has dropped out of high school, can't afford reassignment surgery, works as a babysitter, and identifies as a lesbian. It's fascinating to see du Maurier's old-fashioned hetero sexual dynamics transposed into a modern romance between a naive trans girl/woman and a sophisticated cis-gender college student.

From the opening line ("Last night I dreamt I went to Fire Island again") we know where we are--in the hands of a very fine writer taking on a challenging project and having a great time. If you haven't read Rebecca ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again") a lot of Maxine will seem pointless, the problem with all reworkings and retellings. On the most basic level, you won't get the names: Maxine Winter = Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter; Becky = Rebecca; Francesca, the narrator's best friend = Frank Crawley (the one person sympathetic to the new Mrs. de Winter), and especially Danny, Becky's gay best friend = Mrs. Danvers, the insanely devoted housekeeper. In a neat twist on the nameless narrator, Olsen's heroine refuses to divulge her original "boy name," and will only reveal the new, feminine name she made up for herself: Jayla. Readers more familiar with du Maurier's work will enjoy identifying the minor characters too: Aunt Hope/Mrs. van Hopper; Inspector Julyan/Colonel Julian; creepy Favell/Jack Favell; and Ben, the autistic boy, who, like the mentally-challenged fisherman in the earlier work, has witnessed something very disturbing indeed from his beachfront "shack." In all cases, Olsen has avoided the simplistic exact correlation between her characters and du Maurier's, instead finding the essence of each character and his or her relation with the narrator. But everybody should appreciate the stroke of genius in transplanting the story from Cornwall to Fire Island: two fashionable beach communities with a dark history of shipwrecks, not all of them accidental...

Of course, Maxine is still a good story on its own. Olsen's work crackles with subtle humor and throwaway lines that a less accomplished writer would showcase instead of, well, throwing them away. She has a knack for writing in a believable voice as a young person navigating the difficulties of love and sex, not yet able to make sense of it all. "Who would ever love me?" Jayla thinks near the beginning of the story. "No one would ever look at me and think, She's perfect. And that's what love is all about.... The best thing I could imagine someone saying about me was that I was kind or caring."

The only problem with this novel, the reason I gave it four stars, is that by having to follow another novel's plot too closely, Olsen's story bogs down in the middle with some of the requisite details. But things eventually pick up, and then the real brilliance begins, as Olsen moves away from pastiche and establishes her own version. In du Maurier's work, the narrator's seemingly glamorous life becomes a nightmare and her initially attractive husband begins to lose his appeal. But the biggest revelations are all about the title character, who is dead before the story begins. At some point, as we read Maxine, we begin to understand that Olsen's revelations are going to be different, and that's as much as I can say without spoiler alerts.

Olsen also does an excellent job of illuminating the practical difficulties of being transgender: the legal problems, getting the required IDs, dealing with public bathrooms, and worst of all, how services that should be helpful and non-judgmental turn out to be anything but, like a shelter for victims of domestic violence and partner abuse.

Maxine has a happier ending than du Maurier's work. It is YA fiction after all, and there's no point in writing a downbeat story for young LGBTQ readers. Some people may wonder why Olsen chose to retell a story that seems dated and irrelevant to today's more confident young people. But that's only the surface. The insecurities and prejudices that crippled du Maurier's narrator in 1938 haven't disappeared. In some ways, they're an unavoidable part of being young--at least for those of us who aren't perfect.

I do wish Olsen could find her way to writing something for us older (and still imperfect) readers, but that's the thing about good writers: they know what they want to do, they know what they do well, and they do it. If Olsen is happy being a writer of YA, that's what she'll continue to do, and she'll bring along some of us who wouldn't otherwise read it.

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