This book begins with about a hundred pages of illustrated story, as we follow five generations of a theater family. We begin with two brothers performing a play on a ship, which ends with a storm and a wreck. The story travels to London, to the building of the Royal Theatre, and through generations of good and wicked characters, loving and distant parents, great and mediocre actors.
The art is absolutely gorgeous. I could look at this art all day. I would like to hang some of these illustrations on my wall, particularly the first image in the book, of the ship at sea.
And then we transition into the text. This part of the novel takes place in 1990 in London; Joseph has run away from boarding school--between his absent parents, his trouble at school, and his departed best friend, he has nothing to keep him there, so he goes looking for the uncle he's heard of but never met.
Joseph is about 12 and unprepared for this adventure, but luckily he finds his way to his uncle's house where the solitary man reluctantly takes him in. He finds that his uncle lives a strange, reclusive life, in a large, old-fashioned house where everything seems frozen in time--there is nothing modern in the house, and his uncle travels by horse-drawn carriage. Their lives are lit by candles, and the contents of each room are perfectly preserved; his uncle is very specific that nothing must be moved or changed.
Well, this is a mystery that any 12-year-old will want to investigate, and with the help of the spunky girl next door, Joseph goes poking around into everything, breaking stuff and causing trouble and finding clues to the history of the Marvel family--clues that point to their history being Joseph's own.
And I....really can't stand this. Maybe it's because I'm too much of a grown-up, but everything feels so contrived and forced. Joseph is an irritating kid--the kind who's always causing trouble for other people in books (asking annoying, embarrassing questions; instantly doing exactly what you just asked him not to do, even if that's something designed to keep the house from burning down.
Honestly, maybe this is a success on the book's part; so many kids' heroes are meant to be strange and awkward, but they're "Hollywood ugly," meaning they're really normal and relateable, but somehow nobody gets them. Joseph isn't this kid--he's genuinely kind of annoying.
Then there's the mystery. Yeah, his uncle's life is clearly weird. But he just met this guy, who barely knew he existed. How does he go from "arrived in the middle of the night; trying to figure out where the bathroom is" to "must poke into ever drawer to find the Answer" in literally a few hours, when there really isn't even a question.
Honestly, I kind of spend most of the book sorry for the uncle and wishing that he had another option besides putting up with Joseph and sending him back to boarding school, because neither seems like a great path to me. I mostly wanted Joseph to leave him alone for five minutes.
And then the solution to the whole mystery, while sad and poignant, is...weird? Not quite "it was all a dream," but trivial along that line. I'm left feeling like I'm not quite sure why I read this story.
The more I think about it, the more I think this is a book for someone who feels as out of place as Joseph--completely unattached to anything, alone and adrift. And I feel for him, I really do. But I don't relate to him; his alienation bears pretty much no resemblance to my alienation, and instead of wanting to reach out to him as I so often do with kids in books who just need a friend or caretaker, I just wish he'd keep his head down and stop being so weird.
God I'm a jerk. I mean, I look at this review and I'm demonstrably being a jerk about it. But I just don't care for this story.
Oh, but the art! The silent story of the Marvel family, as told in pictures that are lavish and atmospheric and at the same time loose and mysterious! I would love to see so much more of this. Just without all the words getting in the way.