Hello, everyone! Happy Thanksgiving week for my American readers, and happy Third Week in November for everyone else! I’ve been speed-reading like a mad-man to complete my Goodreads 2022 reading challenge, and this week I read Nita Prose’s 2022 murder-mystery The Maid, a best-seller that’s currently being adapted for film (and supposedly starring Florence Pugh, which might be more than this book deserves). While there were many elements of this book to savor, from Prose’s descriptive language, to her inclusion of a neurodivergent protagonist, the mystery itself left something to be desired. It was all a bit too twee for my taste, and while it was a quick read, it wasn’t a book that I’d pick up twice.
Synopsis: Molly Gray was born to be a maid. As someone who struggles to understand social cues and read facial expressions, Molly relishes the formality and simplicity of her job as a maid at the luxury Regency Grand Hotel. Although her co-workers nickname her the “roomba,” for her robotic attitude, Molly finds peace in her orderly lifestyle, and considers the hotel a sanctuary to deal with the grief of her grandmother’s sudden death. She even strikes up a friendship with Giselle Black, the younger second-wife of wealthy businessman Charles Black, and a frequent guest at the hotel. But when Molly finds Mr. Black dead in his suite, she becomes caught between competing interests, and is soon a person of interest in the investigation. To prove her innocence, Molly must find the killer and protect herself from a world that views being different as a crime.
My thoughts: There’s a lot to like about The Maid. For one, I appreciated reading a story centered around a neurodivergent character like Molly Gray. Raised by her grandmother, who also had a career as a maid, Molly sees a clean and orderly life as a way of protecting herself from the cruelty of the world around her. Her grandmother’s mantra of “clean home, clean body, clean company” acts as Molly’s guiding light, a way for her to find structure in a world of ambiguity and nuance that she doesn’t quite understand. Molly’s perspective on life exemplifies a woman trapped between her optimistic ideals and her wearying life experiences. Narrated in the first person, Molly’s inner monologue teeters between naive child and bitter adult. She sees the good in people she doesn’t know, but has a strong dislike for those who violate her core principles, and carries fierce grudges against those who have wronged her. Because of her clouded perspective, and her inability to see the nuances in the actions of other characters, Molly provides unreliable narration. She guards secrets from the reader as if she’s scared to face our judgment, and reveals narrative twists with the nonchalance of someone who cares only for their own moral compass.
Prose balances the first-person characterization of Molly with secondary characterization from those around her. Their opinion of Molly is often so different from her own that these bits of dialogue feel like needles piercing Molly’s protective mental cocoon. The most illuminating exchanges come from Giselle Black, a character who appreciates Molly’s quirks, even if she doesn’t always have the patience for them.
She seemed to understand that I don’t always know the right way to behave or what to say. Once, I came at my usual time to clean the room, and Mr. Black was seated at the bureau by the door, perusing paperwork and smoking a filthy cigar.
“Sir. Is now a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?” I inquired.
Mr. Black peered at me over his glasses. “What do you think?” he asked, then, like a dragon, exhaled smoke right in my face.
“I think it’s a good time,” I replied and turned on my vaccuum.
Giselle rushed out of the bedroom. She put her arm around me and gestured for me to turn the machine off.
“Molly,” she said, “he’s trying to tell you it’s a really bad time. He’s trying to tell you to basically fuck off.”
….Giselle is good like that. Instead of making me feel stupid, she helps me understand things.Prose, 46-7
Other characters, less kind than Giselle, provide the reader more insight into the way the world sees Molly. From Cheryl, her tip-stealing supervisor, who treats her like a mark she can con, to Rodney, the bartender, who takes advantage of Molly’s admiration to trick her into unsavory acts, the reader learns that although Molly sees herself as an independent adult, the people around her view her as a strange and vulnerable person they can manipulate. This also provides a second layer to the mystery of Mr. Black’s death, as the reader is forced to rely on Molly’s limited understanding of potential suspects in order to try and solve the whodunnit.
Speaking of the whodunnit, Nita Prose writes a pretty tidy mystery, even if its resolution is a bit too cloying for my tastes. Prose lays the groundwork for solving the case early in the novel by giving the reader glimpses into the relationships between Molly and the rest of the characters. One early encounter between Molly, Rodney, and the kind-hearted dishwasher Juan Manuel provide a bounty of clues to an attentive reader, although Molly doesn’t seem to notice. Much of the fun of the book comes from trying to read between the lines of Molly’s perspective to try to decipher clues that she might miss.
While the mystery is fun to solve, I found the legal aspect of the novel lacking. Although I can understand that society as a whole might view a neurodivergent person like Molly with some suspicion, I didn’t buy the idea that she would be accused of murder on circumstantial evidence, especially when there were plenty of other suspects with better motives, and I found it even harder to believe that in turn the police would realize their errors and apologize for wrongly suspecting her. In the United States, pigs will fly before the police will apologize for anything, so this cutesy turn of events was not only silly, but undercut Prose’s point about how society wrongly discriminates against neurodivergent people. That said, I can forgive the novel for leaning into the fictional side of the legal system, because no one wants to read about a vulnerable neurodivergent woman being falsely imprisoned for murder because she couldn’t afford bail and her public defender told her to take a plea deal.
The cutesy ending is a symptom of the novel’s larger problem: an over-reliance on one-dimensionality. Although Prose give Molly a multi-faceted character, the other characters in the novel suffer from a lack of similar treatment. Characters are either good eggs or bad eggs, as Molly’s Gran would call them, and although their categorization might not be apparent at the start of the novel, they aren’t given the same nuance as Molly. Gran especially is such an idealized character that she seems more like an angel than a flesh-and-blood human, and Prose makes her seem even less realistic by having her speak in aphorisms like some kind of modern-day Benjamin Franklin.
This is why the ending comes as so much of a surprise for the reader. After having grown used to Molly’s rigid moral compass, and the idea that her world is full of only good and bad eggs, it’s shocking for Molly to reveal two bombshell twists to the reader in the final third of the novel. While I won’t spoil the ending here, I found it made me reconsider Molly’s character in a new, more unfavorable light. Even though I had felt like I was reading an unreliable narrator until that point, I had never considered that Molly’s unreliability was deliberate. Prose’s twist ending provides the type of shock that murder-mystery readers might relish, but it also does a disservice to the novel by cutting out its emotional core. If the reader can’t trust Molly, then the moral heart of the novel falls apart. For a colder, more cynical book, this twist ending might have been more effective, but for a novel that’s about valuing inner character over superficial outer qualities, it’s a nasty surprise.