LOST is a novel
by Gregory Maguire
Published by Regan Books
Hardback--retail $26.00, ISBN 0060393823, 384 pages, October 2, 2001
Paperback--retail $14.95, ISBN 0060988649, 384 pages September 17, 2002
Gregory Maguire has managed to write another novel that is both decidedly fantastical and decidedly for adults. Like his earlier masterpieces (Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), Lost is in part inspired by a well-known fairy tale. However, unlike the earlier two books, this one bears only a slight resemblance to the story that inspired its central theme: The story of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. The book also takes inspiration from the true story of Jack the Ripper and seems to bear marks of influence from various children's stories (most notably Peter Pan).
Some spoilers below; skip summary for opinion-oriented review.
The main character, Winifred Rudge (a.k.a. Winnie), is an American author who wishes to make a name for herself writing fiction. Unfortunately, her most successful writing has been an astrology book she's published under a pen name, and though its various printings keep her cupboard full, she's struggling as an artist. She decides she needs some inspiration, and though this is portrayed innocently enough, it turns out that Winnie is actually subconsciously using her search to begin working through painful issues of her past. After being unable to find inspiration in the States, Winnie hops a plane to England, where her cousin John lives, and hopes to stay there until inspiration strikes.
Unfortunately, her cousin is not there when she arrives, though there is ample evidence that the builders he has hired have been in and out of the place, doing a lot of damage but not getting a lot done. Winnie tries to ignore the fact that her cousin has apparently abandoned her to an empty house, and gets on with her mission of writing. She struggles with several possible storylines, trying to get her character to be more real to her. Maybe Wendy Pritzke is solving a mystery; maybe she's in a love story; maybe she's investigating a ghost. Whatever the case, the increasingly mysterious absence of Winnie's cousin begins to nag at her, and so does the work of the builders. It appears that something is stopping them from doing the kitchen remodel.
Odd sounds and very odd occurrences (i.e., the newly-embedded nails actually pushing themselves out of the wall, and a slashed-cross symbol appearing everywhere) spook the builders into abandoning the remodel altogether, leaving Winnie to face whatever has apparently been disturbed and unleashed by the upheaval. In her investigation, she meets memorable neighbors, one of whom is a batty old lady who writes notes to herself everywhere and one of whom is a widow with too many children. Through befriending the widow, Winnie is introduced to a couple other strange characters: A transvestite fortune-teller and a man who finds her strangely attractive even though she lies to him and avoids him.
And speaking of avoiding, the people at her cousin John's job keep giving her the runaround about his whereabouts. She wonders if he is avoiding her or if something terrible has happened. In her search for both information about her cousin and her search for inspiration, more clues of her past come out, including her admission that she is the descendent of a man believed to be Dickens's inspiration for writing about Scrooge. Her relative was said to be possibly crazy and plagued by ghosts, and the story goes that Dickens, a lad at the time, listened to her great-great-grandfather's raving and was inspired to create the mysterious and compelling Ebenezer.
After much drama, Winnie convinces her male companion to call John's office, and they find out that he has been successfully avoiding her. (Having a man call did not ring the secretary's warning bells, to tell her to lie and say he is out of the office indefinitely.) It turns out that she has quite a history with her cousin; they are cousins through a family marriage, and she was attracted to him in the past. Though this bit of the story is told attractively in bits and pieces of Winnie's writing about Wendy, it is obvious it is her own story; she traveled to a remote location in Asia with her cousin John as her companion, ended up sleeping with him (consummating emotional attachments), and then being unable to claim the baby she was to adopt because the nanny of the several babies had died during the night, which allowed the fire to go out, and all of the infants froze to death during the night. Confronted with her emotional drama coming out in the character of Wendy Pritzke, Winnie goes a bit dotty when she is asked to put it behind her, and delves further into the mystery surrounding the possible ghost in her house.
Apparently the ghost has been let loose out of John's wall, leaving behind only a death shroud whose fibers end up being dated by an appraiser at somewhere in the middle ages. The spirit of the woman who'd been wrapped in it ended up possessing one of the cats of the batty old woman who is John's neighbor, and then possesses Mrs. Maddingly herself. The ghost is confused and speaks in a guttural medieval French, and Winnie, feeling that she's lost everything, invites the ghost to go from the crazy neighbor into herself. This is where it gets very interesting.
The ghost is a woman named Gervasa from medieval France, and Winnie finds out more about her as she becomes accustomed to having this other presence in her head. She escapes the hospital where she was being held and devotes herself to a totally different mystery: Solving an event that surrounded Gervasa's centuries-old death wish. Winnie and her mental piggy-backer travel to an ancient church to find out whether her child was condemned to Purgatory by the gospel of the time. Eventually finding that the child would have gone to Heaven with a clean soul despite their misinterpretation of a slashed-cross symbol on their grave, Gervasa has fulfilled her mission, and Winnie helps her to die properly. It's only then that Winnie begins to pick up the pieces of her own life and get over her past.
And now my review. . . .
Of Maguire's books, I enjoyed this one the least, mostly because it just took so long for the character of Winifred Rudge to become sympathetic. I enjoyed the way she played with scenes for her character, but other than that I found few compelling qualities about her until I found out why she was so sort of standoffish (i.e., painful past, unresolved relationships, et cetera). Wicked was my favorite, followed by Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, but even though this was slow to start and whatnot, it had a powerful ending and was not neatly wrapped up with a bow like most fairy tales, which lends to its realism. (Call me crazy, but I *like* dangling details and some lack of resolution.) The interaction with a very tangible ghost was something of a surprise, considering the spooky-but-not-quite-otherworldly feeling of the whole first three quarters of the book. Also, it was impressive how Maguire put this bizarre happening into the real world, complete with other (normal) people's reactions intact (for example, the appraiser's disbelief when a death shroud legitimately dates to the middle ages, and modern linguists' ability to interpret some but not all of the medieval French dialect). In any case, the book comes recommended for fans of Maguire's other work and fans of reworked, adult fairy tales and fantastical storylines with some basis in the reality we know.