Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May Book Review

Another month, another book review! (Click on the Book Review Club logo for links to this month's other reviews.)

Our little town has been the Bermuda Triangle of technology this week. My desktop computer and DSL connection both pooched last Friday, leaving me to schlep the laptop to the library when I want to go on line or check email. I am alternately encouraged and disheartened to know that several of my fellow townfolk also have mysteriously crashed their computers at the very same time, some of them more than one. (I put my hands over my laptop’s little ears when I typed that.) ( I love you, little laptop. Love you. You’re the best little laptop. The Best. In the world. ) (Don’t crash.)

Anyway, here’s this month’s review. I’ll check back in when possible.

The Mysterious Benedict Society
By Trenton Lee Stewart
Little, Brown & Co., 2007

Four kids are plucked from orphanages or families that don’t understand them, and trained to save the world by using their unrecognized talents.

They’re in a boarding school setting, with the full complement of baddies and their victims. They face dangers, some physical and others deeply, horrifyingly psychological.

The plot hangs together beautifully. The tone is one of delightful deadpan goofiness, permeating characters and action and setting.

Wow. This novel has it all.

So why did I have to keep forcing myself to read it?

I’d saved this book for a period of convalescence, so perhaps that’s the problem. I was fogged up on painkillers while reading it, only slightly less so when I wrote this review. Bear that in mind, by all means.

But still. I can’t help thinking that at least part of the problem is that I really didn’t care whether the good guys won.

For me, that’s the danger of goofiness. There’s a level of comedy (“level” may not be the right word— maybe I just mean “type”) that isolates me from characters, makes them and their plot and their actions seem less real, less important. This is why I tend not to enjoy slapstick—even, I’m embarrassed to say, the Marx Brothers. The minute I sense that the author cares more about laughs than understanding a character, I lose interest.

MBS sacrifices character for action, message, and humor…and the sacrifice almost works. The fact that the four main characters represent “types” is actually part of the fun. They are brought together by the mysterious Mr. Benedict, head of a very select and very secret group that is trying to prevent the villain from destroying the world in a particularly dreadful way. (I won’t tell you anything about the villain, because finding out about him also is part of the fun.)

Benedict chose the four for their important attributes: There’s eleven-year-old Reynie, a genius and born leader; Stickie, another genius who retains everything he ever reads; the redoubtable Kate, who is uncommonly brave and resourceful ; and the intensely annoying Constance, a very young child whose important attribute remains hidden until the end.

Benedict trains his team , then dispatches them to an island school where all the evil stuff is taking place. The foursome accomplishes remarkable feats of puzzle-solving, intrigue, insight, and derring-do while facing down soul-chilling dangers.

It’s boarding school novel, spy thriller, dystopian warning, and Kids-Against-Authority comic whirlwind rolled up in one. It has a lot in common with the Harry Potter books.

Except for one important factor. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the moment when Harry learns he’s a wizard, destined to leave his despicable foster family and go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is a moment of giddy triumph for the reader as much as for Harry. It’s the moment you dreamt of when your parents had just grounded you—somebody showing up out of the blue to announce that these dull and unworthy people weren’t really your parents, you were really the lost queen of Anatolia. We already know enough about Harry, faults and all, to imagine ourselves in his situation.

In MBS, Reynie is our point of view character. We’re told he’s smarter than everyone at the orphanage and is made fun of, but what we actually experience of his life seems pretty good. He has a tutor who loves him and acknowledges his genius, he has a full stomach and clothes that fit. He doesn’t yearn for his lost parents, or for anything much. We’re intensely interested in what it takes for him to pass Mr. Benedict’s qualifying tests, but otherwise there’s nothing at stake. We don’t identify with Reynie or his situation, we can’t see ourselves in his shoes¬—we want to know what happens next but not necessarily what happens to him.

Worst of all, we don’t know him any better at the end of the novel than at the beginning. He has none of Harry’s flaws or humanity. He’s a figure on a chess board—no matter how thrilling the match, in the end he just gets packed up and put back in the box. Nothing of him stays with you when you close the book.

The Mysterious Benedict Society has a lot going for it—recommended reading, certainly, for anyone who likes puzzles and figuring things out. If you’re looking to populate your brain with a new set of characters, though, you’ll have to look elsewhere.