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Review: The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger

Lady Duff Gordon is one of nineteenth century London’s best known aristocrats.  Famed for her house parties, friendships, and writing, she is admired by all who meet her, including her lady’s maid, Sally Naldrett.  But Lady Duff Gordon has tuberculosis and is slowly dying from the inside out, even though she tries to hide it.  Her doctors advise a departure from the damp English climate, so she’s forced to move away from her family, to Egypt, with only Sally as a companion.  There, without a household of servants around her and the love of her Lady giving her peace, Sally begins to discover freedom like she’d never imagined; until she crosses a line and abruptly learns that she has nothing.

The Mistress Of Nothing has the distinction of being one of few historical fiction novels I’ve managed to thoroughly enjoy this year.  I was never bored and I never knew what was going to happen next, which is so refreshing when I feel I’m usually reading the same stories over and over again.  Kate Pullinger’s prose is rich and enveloping; I was completely sucked into this book from the very first page.  Sally narrates the book and I adored her voice and her character, how she embraces freedoms and discovers so much about herself that wasn’t possible when she was only a simple servant.

The gorgeous descriptions made me feel as though I could have been in England and Egypt, too.  I really enjoyed the contrast between the two locations.  Not much time is spent in England in the book, but Sally has lived there her whole life and she recognizes when her life begins to change.  Just the moment when she decides to stop wearing her corset is perfectly captured:

” … Without it, I felt fully unwrapped and as though everyone was looking at me.  My back and arms seemed loosened and free, even with the stiff brown muslim on once again.  I felt odd, as though along with the stays, I’d removed my spine and become a kind of jelly creature, supple, porous.”

At that moment, Sally starts to embrace her new freedom.  She loves her Lady – has chosen not to marry in order to stay with her – but she remembers that she is also her own person and starts to seize on her time in Egypt.  Later in the book, her new ways cause her trouble fitting in with other English people; she becomes a product of her experiences in both countries.

Everything else about the book was richly drawn and evocative, too – the characters’ emotions, the slow-moving but deeply impacting plotline, even the lazy Nile that meanders through the town in which Sally lives.  But the whole thing is truly about a class struggle.  Even when Sally feels equal to her employer, even when she’s spent her life serving another person and that person seems to feel just as affectionate as she does, she can easily be knocked down to absolute zero simply because she’s a servant.  It’s not only a story about a woman embracing life, it’s a story about learning that things could be different and bucking the trend for the first time.  That, at the core, is what makes it so powerful.

I loved The Mistress Of Nothing and, if you enjoy historical fiction, I’m pretty sure you will too.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.

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