Thursday 26 December 2013

Audiobook Review: What Maisie Knew By Henry James, Narrated By Maureen O'Brien

Confession: I was drawn to What Maisie Knew because the movie adaptation stars Alexander Skarsgard. But I decided to read (or, in this case, listen) to the book because the story of a divorce/custody battle in the 19th century really intrigued me. It seems like such a modern issue that I was interested to see an earlier take.

What I learnt was that not much has changed. Granted, it's probably more common now, but I was surprised by just how relevant the ground covered in What Maisie Knew is today. No wonder it leant itself to a modern movie adaptation! The book begins with Maisie's divorced parents fighting a vicious legal battle to try and gain custody of their young daughter. They want to hurt each other as much as (or perhaps, more than) they actually want custody of the girl. They end up getting joint custody (something that I didn't expect - I had the idea that men automatically got it back in the day), and then each try to turn Maisie against the other, openly putting each other down in front of her and sending her back and forth with petty messages. But soon they have new partners, and their fight over Maisie turns into who can spend the least time with her. She becomes a burden to be inflicted on each other.

Maisie's parents are, needless to say, truly awful. My heart just broke for Maisie several times over. I actually quite liked Sir Claude, Maisie's stepfather, and it was so lovely to see her get some affection and attention from him. I didn't hate Mrs Beale, Maisie's stepmother, though I suspect I was supposed to - and I couldn't stand Mrs Wix, who I think was supposed to be an admirable, if slightly ridiculous, character. She was so self-righteous and silly - but this may just be my own modern morals framing my judgement.

What Maisie Knew is told from the third person perspective of Maisie herself, and I found it quite hard to understand at times. I'm not sure if this was intentional - as though Maisie herself didn't understand what was happening - or if it was just my modern brain not picking up the subtleties and assumed knowledge the contemporary reader would have had. This made the experience quite a frustrating one, something that wasn't helped by the repetitive plot. While at first I was quite captivated my Maisie's plight, by the time she was chucked back and forth, back and forth, again and again between her various parents and step-parents, I was pretty over it. There are only so many times you can bear what is essentially the same plot point repeated in the same story.

The narration by Maureen O'Brien was quite good, but by about the halfway mark, I found What Maisie Knew to be pretty unbearable. I was really tempted to quit, and only didn't because I had come so far. I was really disappointed with the ending, and unsatisfied overall. I don't know that I'll read another Henry James soon.

Rating: 2/5

Fine Print
Published: 2011, AudioGo
Get It: Audible


  1. That's disappointing. This sounds like it did have a lot of promise. At least you can you listened to a classic that you didn't enjoy. Most people would've stopped. Great review, Belle!

    1. Yeah I got so far that I felt like I just had to keep going.

  2. The interwebs ate my comment, all of the sad.

    I'm glad that you read it and told me what it's about, cos I had no idea but it sounds interesting so I'm sorry it didn't work out for you in the end. But I would much rather have a disappointing audiobook than a novel because then I don't feel like I've wasted time since it's only when I'm driving.

    1. Hate it when that happens! Yeah audiobooks aren't as much commitment as normal books in a way. But it sucks you can't flick through them/scan if you do get bored!

  3. So sorry that you didn't enjoy this one more. It does sound interesting and I like audios. But- your honest review was helpful. I agree with Lauren that I would rather listen to an audio book I didn't like instead of wasting my time reading it - since I listen to books while driving, so I am not really wasting my time. :)

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Jess! It is the first negative experience I've had with an audiobook so that's not too bad.