Review: Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing

One woman's efforts to live a different life than the one she was given is at the center of Kate Pullinger's debut novel The Mistress of Nothing. Sally Nedrett's difficult childhood taught her that she is not her own mistress, but when she becomes lady's maid to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, patroness of letters, Sally believes she has found comfort and solace. When Lady Duff Gordon is prescribed an extended stay in Egypt to manage her advanced and debilitating tuberculosis, Sally is happy to leave cold, dreary England for warmer climes and a few opportunities for adventure. When the opportunities include love, learning Arabic, and dressing in airy linen rather than confining corsets, she believes that her cup runneth over - until Lady Duff Gordon tells her otherwise.

Pullinger's prize-winning novel is a treat for the senses and an authentic portrait of mid-19th century life in Egypt. Based on historical record, The Mistress of Nothing is an example of historical fiction done well. The emphasis remains on the characters and the challenges presented by the times in which they live, rather than on sex scenes or sappy romantic interludes. Though this is a love story, the novel does not default into historical romance, which is to its credit. Pullinger paints a believable portrait of what life was like in Sally's time, but the description hangs on broad strokes rather than on precise details that would have collapsed the distance between reader and 19th-century Egypt. This will be a favorite with book clubs.


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