Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Usually, the first emotion I sense while doing this particular trick is excitement at being chosen, quickly followed by doubt that I can really do it. This man—for it is a man’s arm I feel under my fingers—is different. He’s intensely curious about me. I sense a barely concealed anticipation. There’s also a low buzz of suppressed energy coming from him, as if he has thrown up a dam that is barely holding. I’ve never felt anything like it.”
Sixteen year old Anna Van Housen has just arrived in 1920s New York with her mother, the famed mystic and stage performer, Marguerite Van Housen. With a new manager, and a contract for a stage show, Anna hopes that she and her mother will finally be able to stop performing the lucrative but illegal séances that have long been their bread and butter. A gifted magician herself, Anna loves performing on stage, but finds her craft stymied at every turn by her mother’s jealousy and diva-like behaviour. It is this behaviour which forces Anna to keep a terrible secret; while her mother might be a fraud who makes her living by fleecing grieving widows, Anna truly possesses extrasensory powers and the ability to predict the future. Worse, Anna has been having terrible visions of her mother’s death and her own entrapment. The visions have coincided with the arrival of a number of new men in Anna’s life. First there is Cole, a mysterious and perceptive young man who has moved into the flat downstairs. Then there is Dr. Finneas Bennett, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which Anna hopes might hold the key to controlling her powers. And last but certainly not least, the famed magician Harry Houdini is back in town—the man Marguerite claims is Anna’s father—and he is on a mission to expose predatory mediums and other magical charlatans. Unsure who she can trust, Anna must try to solve the mystery of her mother’s death before it happens.
By far the best part of this novel is the tense and complicated relationship between Anna and Marguerite, which is full of contradictions and role reversals. Where Marguerite is ambitious, Anna is financially savvy. When Marguerite gets hauled off to jail, it is her daughter who bails her out, or rather, picks the lock and helps her escape. It seems that Marguerite can always count on Anna, but Anna never knows when she can trust her mother, and when she will make a petty power play. They have common ground in the fact that they are both consummate performers, but Anna has more scruples than her mother, and less taste for danger. At sixteen, Anna is coming to the point where she must make some difficult decisions about her future, and what role her mother will play in the life she wants for herself.
Brown has obviously done her research to make 1920s New York come alive on the page with richly imagined setting ranging from brownstones to restaurants to theatres. She carefully describes the fashions worn by Anna and Marguerite, whose stage roles allow them to take the trends to excess. She also employs appropriate 20s slang, without overdoing it. Taken together, the complex mother-daughter relationship, and the vibrant setting largely make up for any short-comings in the plot, which tended toward the predictable. The ending is also left just open enough that I think we may be seeing Anna again in the future.