Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Maestra.
Although some readers will find Maestra’s retro/anti-feminist tone, distasteful, I thought Hilton’s tale of sex and murder and art immensely entertaining. Unfolding a path toward fortune and its consequences, Hilton’s tale is steeped in exotic European locations as well as several violent deaths. Judith Rashleigh is a lowly art dealer working at British Pictures, a prestigious London auction house. Intelligent and gifted, Judith is determined to fight her way up from the wrong side of the tracks. Yet for all of Judith’s hard work, diligence, and impressive knowledge of art--particularly the Old Masters--her boss, Rupert, refuses to acknowledge her talents.
Lamenting that she has only twenty pounds to her name, Judith bumps into old friend Leanne, who now goes by “Mercedes.” Mercedes tells Judith that she’s been working a champagne bar called the Gstaad Club for about a year. The place is classy but full of the same “dirty old gits.” Initially hesitant, Judith nonetheless takes the opportunity to moonlight for a bit at a club renowned for its eye-watering markup on champagne and its collection of “tragic, paunchy older men” who don’t want sex but just want the girls to talk to them. Under a new name (“Lauren”), Judith begins her new career, the daily humiliations of her life at British Pictures thrown into glaring relief. At the Gstaad Club, there’s the illusion that Judith holds all the cards. At British Pictures, she’s bereft of any value or power in a world where she knows better than to try to pretend she’s something she’s not: “I thought if I became a good enough chameleon, no one would ever think to ask.”
Thus begins Judith’s odyssey from humble art assistant who uncovers Rupert’s fraudulence to gorgeous hanger-on in the flashy glitter of Europe’s billionaire class. Here, where the darker side of success is celebrated, men are a necessary evil to be endured for the “sake of shoes and handbags.” “Fresh skins and tight thighs” are the currency in this strange little concentrated universe. The outside world often feels faraway, and girls expect to encounter hostility and scorn from their own sex. On holiday in the south of France with Mercedes and millionaire James, whom Judith befriends at the Gstaad Club, Judith begins to discover the currency of sex and power, which become another pivotal veneer on the enamel of her strength.
When James meets his end, Judith is forced to recognize the unimaginable possibility of prison. With eight thousand euros in cash and no job, Judith hightails it to freedom, landing in Santa Margherita, Italy (“the die-hard destination for rich people”). Through a combination of fortitude and lies, Judith reconnects with Steve, a playboy she partied with in France, and manipulates her way onto his luxury yacht. With her place secured on the Mandarin, Judith is obscured by a fog of female hormones, hairspray and perfume, just one more girl prepared to “hawk it” when there’s a bona fide billionaire in the room.
As Judith’s rags-to-riches adventure unfolds, Hilton proves herself to be a master satirist, viciously skewering a glitter culture that reduces life to power lunches and holding a mirror to a world of wealth that creeps under the epidermis like poison: “when I stepped aboard the Mandarin I think I opened a door.” Utilizing the symbol of Artemisia Gentileschi, the famous seventeenth-century artist, Hilton draws inventive parallels to Judith. Like Artemisia, Judith proves herself to be the most brilliant of apprentices. Many of Artemisia’s paintings were famously violent; so too are Judith’s escapades as she embarks on a manipulative killing spree to cover her tracks.
When the dust settles, Judith’s travels have taken her from Switzerland to Paris, her machinations a malevolent fever-dream of menace that is about to pierce Rupert’s haze of lies and fraud. Her accusations toward Italian detective Renaud intensify the larger picture of sickness and nightmare. In this story of cutthroat one-upmanship, Judith finds herself in danger of being outmaneuvered as the competition is left for dead in a combination of chilled flesh and severed limbs. Behind the veneer of beauty and luxury, Judith proves to be the ultimate psychopath as her true sense of self is at stake.
Salacious and provocative, Maestra stirs emotions with its portrayal of a provocative, aggressive woman driven by anger--a black widow reveling in a high-priced Parisian club where the shadows “hum with the radar of sex.” For Judith, beauty and class are everything, and her push for status and control ultimately leads her to the precipice in a way that will set her up for the next episode in this exciting series.