Summary and book reviews of The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

The Mistress of Nothing

A Novel

By Kate Pullinger

The Mistress of Nothing
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2011,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2011,
    256 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Rigby

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Book Summary

When Lady Duff Gordon, paragon of London society, departs for the hot, dry climate of Egypt to seek relief from her debilitating tuberculosis, her lady's maid, Sally, doesn't hesitate to leave the only world she has known in order to remain at her mistress's side. As Sally gets farther and farther from home, she experiences freedoms she has never known - forgoing corsets and wearing native dress, learning Arabic, and having her first taste of romance.

But freedom is a luxury that a lady's maid can ill afford, and when Sally's new-found passion for life causes her to forget what she is entitled to, she is brutally reminded she is mistress of nothing. Ultimately she must choose her master and a way back home - or a way to an unknown future.

Based on the real lives of Lady Duff Gordon and her maid, The Mistress of Nothing is a lush, erotic, and compelling story about the power of race, class, and love.

1.

The truth is that, to her, I was not fully human.

I was not a complete person and it was this thought, or rather, this lack of thought, that compelled her, allowed her, to act as she did. She loved me, there's no question of that, and I knew it and had felt secure in it, but it transpired that she loved me like a favored household pet. I was part of the background, the scenery; when she entertained, I was a useful stage prop. She treated her staff well and I was the closest to her; I did everything for her in those last years. I was chosen to accompany her on her final, long journey. But I was not a real person to her, not a true soul with all the potential for grace and failure that implies. My error was to not recognize this, to not understand this from the very beginning. When I did wrong, I was dismissed, I was no longer of use to her. No, worse than that - I was excised, cut out, as though I'd become part of her dreadful disease, a rotting, malignant supernumerary limb that...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This reading group guide for The Mistress of Nothing includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kate Pullinger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction
When Lady Duff Gordon, a member of the English social elite, comes down with a debilitating illness that requires exile to a dryer climate, she and her maid, Sally Naldrett, set sail for Egypt. Through Sally's keen and floral narration, Egypt is painted as a place of wonder - of luxuries and freedoms not ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Pullinger's imagined account, inspired by the real lives of Lady Duff Gordon and her maid, reveals fascinating strengths as well as weaknesses in both women, positing neither as being "right" or "wrong," but asking readers to consider the delicate differences between kindness and cruelty, honor and respect. Steeped as it is in Victorian sensibilities, the novel is a shaded, well-considered portrait of emotional betrayal, revealing what happens when a trusted person thinks too little – or too much – of someone else.   (Reviewed by Karen Rigby).

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Media Reviews
Library Journal

While the setting is lovingly and sensuously portrayed, the characters lack the depth and development that would engage the readers' interest; instead they remain somewhat unsympathetic and uninvolving.

Publishers Weekly

Incorporating actual quotes from the real Lady Duff Gordon's letters, and endowing Sally with tremendous character, Pullinger successfully imagines an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.

The Independent (UK)

Pullinger's narrative flows as smoothly as the Nile whose density and odour she seductively evokes.

The Guardian (UK)

The heat and exoticism of 19th-century Egypt are convincingly conjured, but the narrative is less successful in evoking a powerful sense of the conventions and expectations of its time, not only socially but morally and politically, so that the full impact of Sally’s story fails to hit home.

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

For me, The Mistress of Nothing soars only when Sally - and Kate Pullinger - break altogether from the clutches of Lucie Duff Gordon and the fetters of the historical record.

Reader Reviews
Joann

Lame
This book was so bad I could not finish it. Ugh.

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Lady Duff Gordon

Lady Duff Gordon Born on June 24, 1821, Lucie Duff Gordon was the daughter of John Austin, a former army man and legal scholar, and Sarah Austin (daughter of John Taylor of Norwich), a respected translator. Lucie was schooled in Germany during her early years, and demonstrated an aptitude for languages. As an only child, she was frequently in the presence of her parents' literary friends, and regarded John Stuart Mill (the future philosopher), whom her father tutored, as family. When she was fifteen her father was posted to Malta and she was sent to an English boarding school. Two years later her parents returned to England and Lucie, now almost eighteen, started to move about in society, meeting Sir Alexander Duff Gordon soon after.

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