In this highly anticipated follow-up to her award winning first novel, Good to a Fault, Marina Endicott tackles the fascinating world of vaudeville in it’s hey day of the early 20th century. The Little Shadows is itself something of a variety act, at turns tragic and comedic, melodramatic and risqué. It is a theatrical performance of a book, written in four acts and separated by an overture, intermission and encore. And from the moment the curtains rose on this tale of the three Avery sisters and their widowed mother, I was hooked.
The Little Shadows is at the core a story about family. After the death of her husband and only son, Flora Avery is left with three daughters to provide for. Before her marriage, Flora earned her living performing on the vaudeville circuit as a dancer. As her daughters, who at the beginning on the novel are aged thirteen to sixteen, happen to be very pretty and able to carry a tune, she decides to launch them on the stage as a “Sister Act”.
Flora is fiercely protective of her daughters and yet her flighty nature and general incompetence have brought the family to the point where they are forced to sing for their supper. Unfortunately on the vaudeville circuit “supper” is often sacrificed in order to pay for new costumes and makeup.
Originally billed as “The Three Graceful Avery Sisters” Aurora, Clover and Bella Avery are (like the Three Graces of Greek mythology) seen to embody Beauty, Grace and Charm.
Aurora is the eldest sister. With her golden hair and air of innocent frailty, she is the beauty of the family. Being far more practical that her mother, she takes on a role of responsibility, managing the money and looking after her younger sisters when Flora cannot cope with the stress. Her looks combined with her bell-clear soprano voice cause her to be thrust her into the spotlight, whether she likes it or not. As such “The Three Graceful Avery Sisters” are soon renamed “The Belle Auroras”.
Clover, the middle sister, is thoughtful and serious minded. She falls for a talented actor from a rather unconventional background, and ends up following him to London under the shadow of the First World War.
The youngest sister, Bella, is a spritely imp full of playful charm and vivacity. Having been thrust onto the stage at the tender age of 13, Bella is especially vulnerable to the kind of risks faced by young women when exposed to the tawdry backstage dramas of the vaudeville world.
Endicott writes with the effortless grace and subtle skill of any truly great performer. She is the kind of writer who draws you in to her story so thoroughly that it is not until you put the book down that you find yourself remembering a certain turn of phrase or inventive word choice that compels you to go back and re-read, purely to enjoy her beautiful prose.
By far her greatest strength, however, lies in characterization. The Little Shadows boasts a dizzying array of vividly drawn characters, often with deliciously Dickensian names, such as the elderly theatre manager Gentry Fox – a fiercely intimidating man of small stature and giant ego. It is a many and varied cast of actors, comedians and divas (on stage) managers, stagehands and theatre directors (backstage) – each with their own compelling subplot that adds to the rich tapestry of this 500 page homage to old time Show Business.
With meticulous detail, betraying both her love of theatre, her own experiences as an actor and her extensive research into the history of vaudeville, Endicott sets every scene with a vivid backdrop and peoples it with characters that are both familiar (in terms of fitting into easily recognizable stereotypes) and refreshingly original. She gives us innocent ingénues, roguish charlatans and moustache twirling villains, and yet just when you think you are sure you know where the plot is going, she manages to turn everything around, shifting the landscape as suddenly and inventively as the twist of kaleidoscope. And throughout each act she pulls on the heartstrings of the reader like a master puppeteer.
The Avery sisters are taken in separate directions, each one undergoing their own journey into womanhood. Endicott switches viewpoints in such a way that there is often a fair amount of overlap, allowing us to view the same scene from very different angles. The story follows the girls over a period of about five years as they drift apart from one another, fall in and out of love and develop their talents. As the curtain falls at the end of Act Four, the sisters have been touchingly reunited and it seems that each has found a place in the world that they are comfortable with. And yet there is still the encore to be played out and it soon becomes clear that Endicott has kept a final surprise waiting in the wings.
Like any good show, The Little Shadow is wildly entertaining and utterly captivating, the kind of read that will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. The setting will appeal to fans of Water for Elephants and HBO’s Carnivale while the plot will appeal to anyone who enjoys a stirring family drama celebrating sisterhood. And if you are anything like me, the encore will leave you desperately wanting more, even as you stifle the impulse to burst into a hearty round of applause.
Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling