When Feral Children Become Debutantes

Savage Girl, by Jean Zimmerman (Penguin USA)

Savage Girl, set in the gilded age, is a fast-paced read, full of surprises. It’s populated by a rather remarkable array of characters including an unstable Harvard student, his precocious younger brother, his wealthy father who “collects” people (a berdache, a Chinese woman, the girl of the title), scions of old New York families, a murderous ex-sheriff, trusty and not so trust household retainers.

The plot is sort of a My Fair Lady/Jack the Ripper mash-up with a feral girl turned side-show performer turned debutante as the chief suspect. Or is it the Harvard student who grows less and less stable as the novel progresses?

Savage Girl is what I think of as a not-quite-five-stars book. It’s a gripping read with the sort of quirky details that bring a novel to life, but it never quite crosses over from good read to truly great read. Partly, I think that’s a result of our narrator, the Harvard student. He holds himself at a distance from most others, including his family, which means the reader walks the book in the sort of isolation he experiences. We can suspect his cynicism isn’t always warranted, but he doesn’t let us get close enough to anyone else to confirm this possibility.

The novel raises interesting ethical issues—nature vs. nurture, Malthusian economics, class struggle, gender—but it poses problems rather than exploring them. One of my favorite types of reads is the novel that makes us agonize over the right course of action in a situation without any clear right course. Savage Girl could have been this, but by time we get to the end of the novel and realize which characters are its ethical core (but its narrative fringes, unfortunately) it’s too late.

I absolutely recommend this book as a satisfying, thick, entertaining read. If you’re longing for something more than entertainment, you won’t get it here—but you’ll nonetheless enjoy every minute.

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