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underwhelmed by the Penderwicks

There are times in my life when I read a lot, and there are times when I feel like I barely have a moment to pick up a book. The past couple months have been the latter. And before you say I have a good excuse I have to admit that it's as much a question of interest as it is of time. Last fall I was zipping through the new books section of the library; lately I'm just not feeling it. So maybe that's why I'm not as impressed with The Penderwicks as I expected to be—or maybe it's not really that good.

It came highly recommended, and I was totally ready to like it. National Book Award winner! "Modern Classic"! New York Times bestseller! (alright, so that last one is actually more of a debit as far as I'm concerned, but you get the idea). Plus, the concept of a modern old-fashioned story is a good one, and the cover looked accordingly promising. Too bad.

My main complaint about the book is that it feels sketchy. Rather than being developed properly the characters—the four Penderwick girls, supporting players, and badies—are indicated by brief signifiers: Skye is blond and likes math; Batty wears wings; Mrs. Tifton is mean and favors high heels. The setting is similarly lacking, satisfying itself by simply mentioning the details of the surroundings. The mansion grounds where the kids get into trouble feature statues, hedges, and a frog pond, but the author never even tries to evoke any primary experience of those things for us. So, despite the acceptable plot, I had a hard time entering into the story; nothing about it rings quite true.

Take the following descriptive passage, selected more or less at random.

But she found the hedge to be thicker and more prickly than she had anticipated, and after several attempts to crawl through, she had accomplished nothing except snagging her hat twice and scratching her arms until it looked like she had fought a tiger.

Then, when she was just about to give up and go around by the driveway, she discovered a way in. It was a tunnel, carefully hidden behind a clump of tall wildflowers and just the right size for going through on all fours. ...

She emerged on he edge of the enormous formal gardens, directly behind a marble statue of a man wrapped in a bedsheet and holding a thunderbolt over his head.

Many things about that selection are noticeably clunky. "Thicker than she had anticipated"? "More prickly"? What is the hedge made of? Whatever happened to "show, don't tell"? And both "tall wildflowers" and marble Zeus demonstrate a fuzziness in who's doing the observing, or at least a lack of care: why say wildflowers without telling us what they are? And if the character can't recognize Zeus or a toga what are the chances of her pegging the statue as marble or recognizing and naming a thunderbolt? (if the statue is a copy of the one seen here the resemblance is far from obvious!).

Compare to a bit from Gone Away Lake, a good book (by Elizabeth Enright).

The spagnum grew in silver-green cushions; it oozed water at every step, dark water the color of strong tea that had a rich delicious smell. ...

Beyond a wide cluster of sheep laurel, all speckled with flowers, was the bog garden. They had never seen a garden like it; nothing was planted in a bed. It looked as though it had been the work of nature alone. By dark still pools grew leathery pitcher plants, whose urn-shaped leaves held water and drowned insects, and whose wine-colored flowers were like the umbrellas of Siamese kings.

There we have real description, artful prose, and a little bit of allusion. It was hard for me to just excerpt that section and not keep on reading, even though I've already read the book three or four times; I haven't managed to finish The Penderwicks yet.

I have a theory about why, of the two books written for kids of similar ages (grades 3-6), Gone-Away is so much deeper and more engaging— but it's bedtime so it'll have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that if you ask me The Penderwicks, while readable and even pleasant in parts, in no way lives up to its advance billing. I'm disappointed.

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