With her fifth novel, Maurilia Meehan has carved out a subversive niche of chick-lit mystery. Touted as the first of a trilogy, Madame Bovary’s Haberdashery is an amusing romp for the thinking woman, with references to Flaubert, Milan Kundera, and Agatha Christie. The decidedly feminist viewpoint is tempered by a mordant use of irony and satire.
This is something of a writer’s novel, not only for its literary allusions, but also for the number of jokes aimed at arts grants, film rights, and publishers (including book contracts that lock authors into weight-loss programs). However, the story’s twists and turns owe much to popular fiction, vampire romance, and other contemporary fantasies.
In a novel peopled with odious male characters, Zac – a Flaubert scholar who is working on the definitive translation of Madame Bovary – shows promise as a hero. But the cosy ménage à trois with the quicksilver Odette and her corpulent friend Cicely is soon disrupted when Zac reveals a penchant for Gothic avatars. When her friends vanish, Cicely is left to don her Miss Marple bonnet and sleuth their disappearance in a romp through Internet dating, depraved cults, plagiarising film producers, and opportunistic eye surgeons. The narrative veers off giddily into Cicely’s past and offers glimpses of her own novel, an erotic tale inspired by Madame Bovary.
Meehan is adept at using the art of surprise to keep the narrative from stalling, but there is a price to pay. There are several non sequiturs: a theme of long-sightedness which is never resolved, and a superfluous character or two, such as Uncle Bill, who tries to train Cicely to be a Very Good Woman. The author has fun, but deprives the reader of empathy with the characters and a consistent and satisfying narrative. The promise of a sequel is not enough.