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‘Who Is Maud Dixon?’ is a clever debut novel about a debut novel

“Who is Maud Dixon?” by Alexandra Andrews.  (Little, Brown and Company)
“Who is Maud Dixon?” by Alexandra Andrews. (Little, Brown and Company)
By Oline H. Cogdill Tribune News Service

The title of this smart, slyly clever debut from journalist Alexandra Andrews says it all. Just who is this Maud Dixon whose first novel is the most talked about book in the history of publishing?

Discussions about the book are rivaled by the secret identity of Maud. All that is known about the author is that Maud Dixon is a pseudonym – she doesn’t do book signings or appearances on the “Today” show or have a social media presence or attend writers’ conferences.

An even better question in “Who Is Maud Dixon?” is who is Florence Darrow, a lowly editorial assistant at a New York City publishing firm. Florence was always told by her hard-working single mother that she was bound for greatness. That’s not likely to happen at this point no matter how much she has distanced herself from her upbringing.

Florence was used to being the smartest person in the room in her small Florida hometown, but that was before she moved to New York. Now she can’t quite fit in with those co-workers raised on the Upper East Side. Her clothes are wrong, she doesn’t know how to pronounce words, and she will blurt out inappropriate comments. She wants to be a novelist – “to mold entire worlds according to her vision”– but she hasn’t written a word in ages.

Through a fluke of circumstances, Florence is asked to be a live-in assistant to Maud, whose real name is Helen Wilcox. The house is remote and, at first, Helen seems willing to mentor Florence on her writing.

Andrews skillfully delves into each woman’s true personality, driving “Who Is Maud Dixon?” into an incisive look at ambition, greed, identity and celebrity worship. Florence is a cypher, soaking up as much as she can in reinventing herself, having built “dark rooms within herself.” She also has more than a little larceny in her heart – not above stalking her married lover’s family or sending his wife photos and text messages.

Helen is mercurial, cruel, dismissive of others, and this second book she is writing might rival Jack Torrance’s gibberish in “The Shining.” A research trip to Morocco changes the dynamic when Florence wakes up in a hospital following a horrific car accident. No Helen, but all her identification is in Florence’s purse, making it an opportune time for Florence to trade up identities.

Andrews’ wicked sense of humor and intelligent plotting deliver a briskly paced novel filled with inventive twists reminiscent of “All About Eve,” “Gaslight” and any Patricia Highsmith novel. “Who Is Maud Dixon?” establishes Andrews as an author to watch.

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