Review posted January 11, 2013.
Harper, 2012. 260 pages.
2012 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Children's Fiction: Fantasy and Science Fiction
It's hard not to like a children's fantasy tale set in Paris. (Okay, it's hard for me not to like any book set in Paris.) Now, Maya, the main character, is not happy to be in Paris, and I like the way they explain it, not in a feel-sorry-for-herself way:
Her mother had a saying for bad days: Life is full of lessons, and the grades aren't fair. By which she might as well have said, Sometimes your mother gets sick -- really sick, like having to go through chemo and losing all her hair and most of her get-up-and-go -- and you have to be a very good sport. Not just for a day or a summer, but for years. And here are the lessons Maya had learned about trying to be always, always a good sport:
1. it's exhausting; and
2. nobody notices; and
3. it doesn't really work very well, anyway.
After Maya's mother is recovering from chemo, she encourages Maya's dad to accept a fellowship he's been offered to move the whole family to Paris for one year. Maya's mom has a cousin in Paris. Maya's little brother is annoyingly happy with the whole thing, and makes French-speaking friends at his new school almost instantly.
But there are some strange things happening in Paris. The Society of Philosophical Chemistry that gave her dad the fellowship has some mysteries. Its director is a distant relation. He's young and handsome, and he seems awfully eager to meet Maya and her brother James. For years, children have gone missing from that section of Paris. Then there's Cousin Louise, who is strangely invisible and unmemorable. She has to ask Maya to get even a waiter's attention.
She was strangely hard to see. No color to her, somehow, just an oddly muted effect, as if there were a curtain of frosted glass between Maya's eyes and her. Or a kind of haze in the air, almost. Just an ordinary sort of woman, but too vague to be properly ordinary, because ordinary ordinary people become more vivid when you pay attention to them, and this woman -- well, you couldn't quite focus on her, somehow.
All the mysteries seem to be focused around an amazing and beautiful old cabinet filled with bottles of earth that is in the possession of another distant relation of theirs -- an eccentric old man who never leaves his home.
The mysteries and the adventure and the danger are woven together skillfully. Maya has to figure out her part in all these secrets, and then try to avert disaster.
I had one teeny-tiny complaint: I didn't think that James talked like a five-year-old. But that's minor, and I was able to adjust my image of him when the author mentioned his age. Perhaps his annoying charisma that makes everyone love him also made him a precocious conversationalist.
And like I said, that complaint was extremely minor. Overall, this book is a highly unusual magical adventure tale. We've got a modern child up against sinister forces in an unfamiliar environment and a mystery to solve before it's too late. And it's all set in Paris! Win-win!