The Maidens by Alex Michaelides: Detailed Book Review
The Frailty of Human Soul Fogged By Its Own Errors.
Murders are committed in St. Christophers, Cambridge University presumably in the name of sacrifices. A serial killer is on the loose and Mariana, an ex-student of the same institute, a guardian of a current student Zoe, and a group therapist believes she can unravel the truth behind these murders. While Mariana worries about her niece Zoe, she also wants to investigate the case. She suspects the Greek teacher Edward Fosca, on her side she has Fred as her companion and Clarissa as her mentor. Ruth, her therapist, Henry, her patient who’s clearly obsessed with her, and Theo, an old acquaintance, contribute to the plot in their own way.
Mariana believes that Edward Fosca is the killer. Being a psychotherapist, is she suspecting right or is she blinded by her own judgments? Alex Michaelides’s second novel after The Silent Patient, The Maidens was much-awaited. It was perceived with mixed reviews and received a lot of comparison with the author’s previous book.
Here’s what appeals to me the most about The Maidens by Alex Michaelides.
Motifs and Symbolisms
While the major theme of The Maidens is a serial killer committing sacrificial murders, the book ventures on multiple other underlying themes. To begin with, we have the reappearing theme of the pedophile. It begins with Edward Fosca choosing the special students, the six Maidens, none of whom ever utter a word against the professor. Mariana is sure about it, and so are the readers, that Edward Fosca has been sleeping with his special students. On the other hand, Mariana was beginning to develop soft emotions for her new friend and the psychic Fred. Though Marian was aware of the age gap between them in the beginning, by the end she no longer dismissed the thought of a relationship between them. But among these, what remains the most shocking one was Zoe’s relationship with Sebastian. Theirs was never a father-daughter relationship, it was always sexual.
Next up is the misjudgment of identity. As a child, Zoe always ran up to Sebastian before Mariana if something went wrong, which Mariana perceived as the daughter’s preference towards her father. Only later does she discover that she has been cheated on for a lifetime, that the person she knew as her husband was nothing more than a traitor, and that the child she has adopted as her own is her husband’s lover. That was the last of Mariana’s misjudgments of identity. Among other instances was Mariana’s firm belief that Edward Fosca was the killer. She was so sure about this that every action by the professor meant something to her. This firm belief had fogged her capability of counting on other possibilities. Also, all her life she had perceived Zoe as a fragile child who has lost her parents and now has lost her dearest friend. In her eyes, Zoe was still the little child who prayed for everyone - only now she wasn’t.
Moreover, in The Maidens, we see a couple of instances where the dead have been kept alive through either practices or habits. Like Clarissa who smoked a pipe, a habit she took up from her husband Timmy and that’s how she kept him alive somewhere within herself. Similarly, Zoe kept Sebestian alive by following the plan they had planned exactly the way it was drafted. Long after his death, Sebastian kept controlling Zoe and through Zoe the others. Just like Tennyson had kept Hallam alive through his poems, quoted a few times in the book, Zoe, Clarissa, and Mariana had kept Sebestian and Timmy alive in their way.
Victimization is another recurring theme. The maidens were the first victims of the sacrificial practice. Secondly, Mariana believed that Edward was the killer but he was one of Sebastian's victims. Thirdly, Mariana saw herself as something of an investigator who, with her therapies, can find out the truth, however, she herself was a victim of the plan. And finally, while others may see Zoe as the murderer of the three young girls, to Theo she too was a victim, on some level.
Mariana is a psychotherapist, Zoe ends up in an asylum, and in between, there is a lot of manipulation, group and solo therapies, and mind games which add a psychological angle to the story. The Greek Mythology and the set up including St. Christopher’s, Naxos, and the folly add a sense of antiquity to the plot. Also, the swan Mariana sees when she and Zoe were on the bench looked worn out a bit but at the same time it was serene and imperious - in a way reflecting Mariana’s self. Another swan she saw while crossing the pint.
Each time the swan had looked deep into Mariana’s eyes as if foreboding something. On the entrance of the folly also was carved a swan in the storm again trying to predict the climax. Finally, after the police had arrived at the spot and things had calmed down a bit, Mariana saw the swan spreading its wings and flying away as if liberating Mariana of the limbo she had dwelled in all this time.
The Tragedy Of Man
Thrillers of this century, especially the last decade, focus more on an unreliable protagonist than one who is always right. The trend is to make the protagonist fail in his/her pursuit and make him/her look more vulnerable than any other character. And yet, in the end, give the protagonist a new and better life. Aristotle, in his book called Poetics, had said (also mentioned in The Maidens) that the story of the protagonist must move from happiness to misery and not otherwise and the cause for this fall must be an error of judgment on the part of the protagonist only. Mariana has indeed made a lot of misjudgments that have caused the tragedy in her life. The story must, therefore, need not be a happy ending but indeed an ending where the protagonist perceives life on a fresh note.
Through famous quotations put at the beginning of the parts, The Maidens make a few strong points that - grief feels like fear, suffering unravels the greatest truths, that you will never encounter demons if you don’t carry them within your soul, that grief makes a man weak and hence he must think of revenge and cease to weep and so on. These quotations inject thought into the story and enrich the plot. In my opinion, The Maidens is a great story with a thrilling plot and twisted end.
“After we die, Mariana thought, all that remains of us is a mystery; and possessions, of course, to be picked over by strangers.”
- Ishika Sarkar
To read more article written by Ishika Sarkar - CLICK HERE
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