“Maxine Wore Black” is basically two stories mashed into one. Mostly, it works.
The first–and primary–story is an updating of Daphne du Maurier’s classic, “Rebecca.” In the acknowledgements, author Nora Olsen calls “Maxine Wore Black” an homage to “Rebecca,” and it does this admirably.
The other story follows the struggles of a transgender girl named Jaylen. She has to deal with things I’d never even have thought of: regular hormone pills, laser hair removal, even getting a valid photo i.d. so she could prove her new identity to the world.
The stories mesh one night at the Queer Prom, where wallflower Jaylen spots the beautiful Maxine from across the dance floor. They exchange numbers, but Jaylen deletes Maxine’s from her phone–she figures Maxine is way too high class for her.
Maxine doesn’t quite see it that way. Although she has a girlfriend–Becky (get it? Rebecca?)–who goes to Princeton, Maxine still contacts Jaylen.
One night, Becky dies, banging her head and drowning in the waters off Fire Island. Maxine is devastated, and Jaylen is there to pick up the pieces, as the two fall in love. The questions start to arise, though: just how devastated was Maxine? Was Becky’s tragic death a suicide or an accident, or maybe something more heinous? And just how far would Maxine go to control Jaylen’s life completely?
“Maxine Wore Black” is a good book, with some great parts. The mysterious death plot was beautifully handled–Nora Olsen has serious storytelling skills, and she draws Maxine as a truly insane witch. Jaylen is an interesting narrative voice. We know she’s not educated–she repeatedly mentions she doesn’t even have her GED yet–but she seems to have some intelligence. She quickly realizes that Maxine is controlling and manipulating every facet of her life, from showing up at her jobs to going through her phone messages.
Like many abusive partners, though, Maxine can go from vicious to loving in a finger snap. That’s why Jaylen stays with her, even though we, as readers, just know this isn’t going to end well.
The second, underlying story–Jaylen’s transgender obstacles–doesn’t always mesh with the mystery surrounding Becky’s death. At times, it feels like the transgender part is just forced into the story randomly. This is a shame, for there aren’t a lot of books that handle transgender issues well. “Maxine Wore Black” doesn’t downplay the issues–Ms. Olsen deals with them in an honest, caring manner, in my opinion. The problem is that this particular mystery might not be the place to raise the transgender subject, or maybe it could have been handled more smoothly. I honestly don’t know. It just felt like the novel’s flow kept getting interrupted, which is a shame.
Maxine is a truly terrifying figure, and her scenes just crackle with insane electricity. “Maxine Wore Black” is worth the read just for her. There are many other positives to be said for this novel. Sometimes, they just don’t quite fit together well.