When I don my maid uniform – not the frumpy Downton Abbey style or even the Playboy cliché, but the blinding white starched dress shirt and the slim-fit black pencil skirt made from stretchy fabric for easy bending – I am whole. Once I’m dressed for my work day, I feel more confident, like I know just what to say and do. At least most of the time. And once I take off my uniform at the end of the day I feel naked, unprotected, undone.–The Maid by Nita Prose
The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations. It’s as if everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know that I’m always playing for the first time. I make etiquette mistakes with alarming regularity, offend when I mean to complement, misread body language, say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It’s only because of my gran that I know that a smile doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is happy. Sometimes people smile when they’re laughing at you. Or they’ll thank you when they really want to slap you across the face.
Gran used to say that my reading of behaviors was improving “every day in every way, my dear”. But now, without her, I struggle.
The Maid by Nita Prose
The Maid is a mystery novel about a young woman named Molly with undiagnosed autism who works as a maid for a ritzy hotel. Molly lived with her grandmother since she was an infant, and she relied heavily on her gran to help her process and interpret the world around her. However, Molly is now an adult, and after her gran passes away, Molly struggles to get by without that outlet and interpreter. One day Molly finds the body of a wealthy patron at the hotel, and soon she is sucked into the investigation of the man’s murder. Molly’s failure to emote and her frequent social misunderstandings lead her to be marked as a person of interest in the death. However, Molly has more friends than she initially realized, and she must find a way to clear her name and solve the mystery.
There are plenty of portrayals out there of characters with autism at varying places on the scale, and I (like many of you I’m sure) have become accustomed to the portrayal of an autistic person who is “low functioning” and incapable of relating to or communicating with those around her. One of the things I really appreciated about this book is how the main character Molly could certainly be considered “low-functioning”. She is heavily reliant on routines, struggles heavily and noticeably with sarcasm and disingenuity on a daily basis, and has been ostracized by her co-workers for being so odd and seemingly dysfunctional. However, Molly is always treated by respect by the author. She is seen to be a highly intelligent woman who has struggles. The author makes it clear that Molly can and will participate in all of the normal life events as a person without autism: she has friends, is capable of a relationship (though it is easy to take advantage of her), and was very close to her grandmother. I really appreciated this portrayal of Molly, who demonstrates but not made lesser by her personal struggles.
In The Maid, the Regency Grand Hotel is nearly as important as the characters, and it was interesting to see the setting play out in this way. A great deal of Molly’s social rules have been shaped by the performance expectations laid out by her manager, and in that way the employees of the hotel become a part of the setting as well. While it is clear that the Regency Grand Hotel purports itself to be a luxury hotel, there is still a great deal of illicit activity that goes on without the knowledge of the hotel management. Some of the hotel employees talk about the hotel as if it were a person – as if there is a corruption or a rot going on within. Molly as a character is perceptive and detail-oriented, and some of her rich descriptions do a lot to fill out a vibrant, realistic setting.
The characters and setting were great, but the pacing is what really makes this book. Given Molly’s frequent obliviousness to what is happening around her, there was a lot of room for The Maid to drag. However, the author’s use of suspense (and sneaking in little hints to the reader on what Molly is missing) pushes the plot along even when Molly doesn’t notice what’s happening. There was a great balance of character development and action, and the handful of surprises came across as genuine and believable.
In all, I’ll give The Maid a 10 out of 10. This is a compelling mystery that I really think will draw in almost all readers, and the mystery is balanced by a thoughtful portrayal of the realities of living with autism in a world designed for neurotypical brains.