“The Pandora” by Stephanie Charette (11462 words)
No Spoilers: Portia was once Jane, but has been renamed and is now ward of a man, Mr Reid, who has promised to “educate” her on how to be a good wife. She wasn’t alone in this incredibly skeevy setup, either, having been effectively adopted along with Cordelia, who was renamed to Mary. Portia has “won” out of the two, though, and after Mary’s departure, the next phase of the education is set to begin. In France. Before she goes, though, a friend of Mr. Reid (or maybe more apt a friend of a friend), gives her a gift. A special kind of doll. One that has some secrets to share with Portia, if she’s willing to make a bargain. And given how things go in France... The piece is creepy as hell, Portia a child and victim of a man who has some very fucked up ideas and plans for her. It’s a difficult read, but one that finds Portia/Jane giving herself the most important education of all--how to survive a corrupt world as a poor, young girl.
Keywords: Dolls, Bargains, Invitations, CW- Abuse, CW- Rape (attempted)
Review: This whole situation is just so fucked up and so well handled by the story, which sets up the mother of all red-flag-laden traps for Jane and gives her basically no way to escape. She’s been manipulated and used, the victim of a man who seems to be trying to...”raise” a wife according to some authoritarian rules about what makes a good woman. She’s targeted girls who didn’t have homes, orphans who no one would miss, and has to this point has mostly been keeping his word about what he’s doing--teaching them and making them do chores, basically. Now, it’s quite possible that more was happening with Cordelia, who got out, but that too is so fucked up because in order to get out, she had to throw Jane under the bus. I’m guessing that Cordelia was told more about what was going to happen because she was the favorite, or else her abuse was more sexual than Jane’s. Either way it’s a mess of abuse and trauma, both girls preyed on by a man who has known only affluence, who sees them as experiments, as things, as dolls.
Which is where the horror but also the hope comes in, because in this situation Jane only has the doll she is given, Pandora. A being someone able to communicate with her and offer to take her place for those things that Jane cannot bear. And even that is a trap, really, Pandora using Jane just as much as Mr. Reid, though perhaps not quite so horribly. But Pandora wants escape, true escape, and so they decide that they are going to play into Mr. Reid’s game and win it, and then swap places with him. Which leaves Jane in about the same place, a prisoner, used and expected to clean up everything, to bear everything. She’s pulled between people who openly think that girls have no power, that being a woman is in many ways being in a prison. And into that Jane can only really try to keep her head above water, because the only other option seems to be to die. Except that everyone also expects her to obey because she, too, knows her own powerlessness. But there’s only so far she can be pushed, and in trying to make room for her own safety, her own choice, she might just free herself from all the traps looking to ensnare her. And buy herself a measure of freedom, and an identity that’s not dependent on a man.
It’s a wrenching read with a creeping feel to it. The abuse that Jane goes through is unsettling, terrifying, and all too real. Her reaction to it is understandable and heartbreaking, the way that she trades her body for some measure of protection, the way she is brought from one predator to another, even the people who say they’re trying to help her actually more interested in their own schemes and power. She’s alone, profoundly alone, and yet for all that, for as vulnerable as that makes her, I appreciate that the story doesn’t twist the knife, that it doesn’t put her through even worse, that it gives her a chance out, away from the prison everyone created for her. The end is grim but freeing, alive, defiant, and makes for a great read!