PLAYING THE JACK by Mary Brown

PLAYING THE JACK

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The picaresque--but largely humdrum--adventures, 1785-89, of a teenaged English orphan who goes by four different names while narrating these predictable episodes. As ""Sprat,"" a 15-year-old runaway lad, the starving orphan joins up with a band of strolling players: he acquires some show-biz savvy; he becomes fond of stern ringmaster Jack, fat lady Annie, horse-trainer Tom; he's rescued from an undeserved whipping by trickster Jack--and promptly repays the favor by helping to rescue Jack from undeserved jailing. Fairly soon, however, the reader learns that ""Sprat"" is really Zoe, a girl in boy's disguise! (The familiar, YA-ish gimmick is unusually irritating this time around.) So lots of coy/smirky teasing follows--as Zoe, now 15, remains in boy costume (attracting lechery from women and homosexuals), eventually exposing her true nature to enigmatic Jack. . . who responds with restrained lust (mutual masturbation) and waits until Zoe is 17 before deflowering her. Then, after a winter vacation (Zoe goes home with Annie, Jack disappears mysteriously), the troop regathers with Zoe as ""Gemini"" the fortuneteller. But when she catches a glimpse of her lecherous cousin (from whom she fled), Zoe flees again--winding up in a London brothel, where she unknowingly aids a child-sex-slave operation yet manages to steer clear of whoredom (thanks to new pimp-lover Nick). And finally, after being framed for murder by Nick's jealous moll, fugitive Zoe takes on the identity of ""Esther,"" a maid-in-training who is soon hired to become companion-maid to Lady Jestyn of the Riverwood estate. Lady Jestyn Why does that name seem familiar to Zoe? Could it--by wild coincidence--be a name overheard in connection with the secret doings of dear old show-biz pal Jack? It could, it could--as the final 100 pages of this overlong tale become a gothic/romance stew of clich‚s stretching back to Jane Eyre: strolling player Jack is really a blueblood and a government agent; he has a mad wife dying of syphilis; and before Jack and Zoe become the new Lord and Lady J., there'll be three family-deaths. . . plus assorted revelations and misunderstandings. Brown's derivative, uninspired plotting here--and throughout--might not matter terribly if Zoe's narration were loaded with period style and brio. Unfortunately, however, it's solid at best, all too often lapsing into the bland and the hackneyed--with a vocabulary full of dreary 20th-century anachronisms (from ""subconscious"" to ""Thanks for everything"") instead of 18th-century flavor. Too earthbound for a frolic, too contrived for a saga-in-earnest--but with hard-working dollops of sex and sentiment for undemanding fanciers of costumed wooing-and-woe.

Pub Date: March 19th, 1985
Publisher: Simon & Schuster