THE MADAM by Julianna Baggott

Some of the happiest times of my life have occurred while reading, alone. As a child I hated reading out loud. As an actress I despised read-throughs of scripts. Both situations made me self-conscious and clumsy. I would mispronounce words and butcher punctuation so sentences made no sense to the listeners and less sense to me. I needed privacy to understand the material I was reading, or at least a solo rehearsal so I could transition from myself into the character I was supposed to portray.

Over the last two years, I have finally managed to shrug off the curse I believed had been cast upon me. By reading to my Aunt on a regular basis, I have found a way to relax and become one with the book, in order to step comfortably into the characters the author has created. I look forward to our reading sessions. My happiness has now reached a new level of enjoyment thanks to The Madam by Julianna Baggott.

The Madam is not what you might expect from a novel about a woman who chooses to run a whorehouse to provide for herself and her children. The characters are loners with troubled souls and inadequate communication skills, and yet, they draw you in with their raw observations of the world. Much of what they feel or think about underscore their individual strangeness. But it’s impossible not to worry and wonder how they will survive or if they’ll ever experience true happiness. Our endearment to the characters happens through Baggott’s poetic prose.

Bagott’s storytelling is mesmerizing. This particular novel is also a marvelous example of craft elements in their finest execution. Stay away from clichés; avoid stereotypes and predictable images, phrases and events. I don’t believe Julianna Baggott has ever colored inside the lines. Her characters communicate with a freshness that dares you not to laugh.

Wall-Eye, if you don’t stop playing that bagpipe, I’ll shove it so far up your ass, your farts’ll come out duck calls for the rest of your life. 

Point of view is crucial in delineating characters and deepening our understanding of how characters feel about themselves, relationships and situations. The unique ways Baggott’s characters see the world do all the above, plus create a layer of individualized unrest and tension.

And then he was embarrassed by the way she lay here, regarding him listlessly. He tucked in his penis, snaillike, a little slick and shrunken, a soft nub of okra and tightened his belt. 

Part of the poetic strength in Baggott’s writing stems from specificity. What she leaves out smacks up against what she highlights to ground us in the richest of atmospheres, our senses tingling.

Everything is dusted in dog hair, but the dogs have run off. Their scent rises up alongside the smells of bowels, decay, like under-earth, like the death-rot stench of wet leaves. 

What I covet most about The Madam is the rhythm; a ceaseless current slowing only around punctuation with the occasional pause for a period. The rhythm of the words, chosen with a surgeon’s care, mingle with the reader’s pulse and urge him ever onward. Read the following excerpt out loud and see for yourself how disappointed you are when you have to stop. 

Delphine dips the needle into the bottle, then tries to steady the glob over the lamp. Her hands are shaky. They’ve been shaky for as long as she can remember. As the opium bubbles, swells, doubling and tripling in size, she recalls dropping her mother’s butcher-wrapped meat off a trestle bridge over the coal-clouded Monongahela. It was iced over. The meat skidded, leaving a pink trail of blood. Her mother made her climb down through the iced reeds to retrieve it. Her mother, her scarf wrapped around her throat to hide the goiter, nearly as large as a baseball, at the side of her throat. The ice cracked, splintered. The river’s jaws opened and set to swallow her whole.

No book deserves to be read aloud more than Julianna Baggott’s The Madam. In fact, I dare any reader to pick it up and not fall in love.