“Who is Maud Dixon?” is light on character development and plausibility, but rife with the most important ingredient in this strain of suspense fiction: inventiveness. The plot here makes whiplash turns, loop de loops and sudden reversals. It opens in Morocco, swerves to New York and ends up in the cool amoral vacuity familiar to fans of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. What’s not to enjoy?
The apparent innocent thrust into peril at the beginning of the novel is named Florence Darrow, an aspiring writer working as a publishing assistant at the “niche” firm, Forrester Books. (“When Florence interviewed there, a senior editor had told her, ‘We don’t do commercial fiction,’ as if it were a euphemism for child pornography.”) Lonely Florence, who grew up in Nowheresville, Fla., and is now estranged from her single mother, was the kind of high school kid who hugged Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to her chest like body armor. But she soon wises up to the fact that her bookishness isn’t going to take her far: The New York publishing world favors glossy assistants who graduated from elite schools.
Her prospects nosedive when some spectacularly self-destructive behavior following a hookup at firm’s holiday party costs Florence her job. It’s at that moment, when she’s resigned to giving up on her dreams, that fate intervenes in the form of a phone call from a prominent literary agent searching for an assistant for one of her writers. Florence interviews and then lands what must surely be one of the most coveted gigs for any young person yearning to break into the inner circles of the literati: personal assistant to Maud Dixon.
Who is Maud Dixon? Well, think of her as a mass cult version of Elena Ferrante (before she was exposed). All that anyone (apart from her agent) knows is that Maud Dixon is the pseudonym of the mega best-selling author of “Mississippi Foxtrot,” the psychological suspense novel that everyone is reading. When Florence moves into Maud’s isolated house in rural New York State to begin her new job, she becomes the second person in the entire world to know the true identity of the reclusive, hard-drinking, and prickly author. Maud’s temperament isn’t improved by the fact that she’s wrestling with writer’s block, otherwise known as the curse of the stalled second novel. Impulsively, Maud decides that a trip to Morocco will jolt her creative juices. Off to Marrakesh, Maud flies in high style, whisking Florence along with her (in coach class).
Here’s Florence, a few days before her first international flight, waiting for her expedited passport and meditating on the promise of travel:
“Florence had a sense that she . . . would return a different person, that travel would change her. Change is never a smooth curve; it comes in leaps and jolts, plateaus and remissions. And in the periods after an old identity fades away but before a new one is fully installed, there is a certain sense of impunity. As if nothing quite matters. You are not quite yourself. You’re not quite anyone.”
Poor naive Florence. (Or is she?)
Once the two women land in Morocco, the sinister game of shedding identities begins and Maud and Florence begin tossing their passports back and forth like hot potatoes . . . or hand grenades. “Who Is Maud Dixon?” turns out to be much more than a question about authorship; indeed, it’s a question fraught with life and death consequences. Andrews’s novel is sharp, unpredictable and enormously entertaining. To say anything more would ruin the fun of reading — and being lightly appalled — by it.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Who Is Maud Dixon?
Little, Brown. 336pp. $28.