For some reason I haven’t read all of Jami Attenberg’s books, and after finishing Saint Mazie, I scolded myself over my foolishness. Saint Mazie will have you fall in love instantly with Attenberg. One of my ideas of a good book is when I can’t let go of the thing, carrying it around like a kid with her blanket, so absorbed am I over the words. This one totally hit the mark.
The titular character of a novel usually sets the tone for the book, and Mazie’s an absolutely lovely companion. The book is based on an actual figure, Mazie Philips, who Jami Attenberg learned about when her friend told her he was opening up a bar named Saint Mazie. When she asked who that was, he explained he’d heard about her in a book of essays by legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, which included his 1940 profile of Mazie. Attenberg heard that the real life Mazie’d written memoirs, but they were never published. So Attenberg decided to write them.
The book is set up like a non-fiction book exploring a real life historical figure, with excerpts from Mazie’s diary and unpublished autobiography about her life from the 1900s to the 1930s, and interviews with people who knew her, or who had family who did, or found historical records of her. That might make it sound a bit stuffy, or a slog, but it’s not, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because there’s a person in every single sentence of this book, and they’re all leading characters. Everyone from the recently divorced lawyer the biographer interviews to the malnourished kid Mazie finds one day gets their due. Even the silent biographer gets her own story, and I whooped at the end when we find out how that turned out.