Monday, July 21, 2008

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry - review

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
I just finished this book, sitting on the front porch drinking lemon soda and giggling out loud. Summer is so great.

The Willoughbys is a tour de force. In this short novel (174 pages, and that's including the glossary and bibliography), the estimable and thought-provoking Lois Lowry presents her own idea of a nice activity for a fine summer afternoon: she fires up the grill and roasts the living crap out of some of the most ludicrous and unpalatable tropes of classic children's literature.

  • She takes the baby left on the doorstep, shears its angelic curls, and pawns it off on a neighbor.
  • Her brave orphans are neither orphans, nor brave (at least at first).
  • The long-lost relative is not particularly missed.
  • The Swiss are by and large insufferable.

At least none of the characters manage to convince a wheelchair-bound pal to get up and walk again. That's one plot nugget too awful to be rehabilitated, even with barbecue sauce and hickory smoke.

And what emerges from the smoke, caramelized and juicy, is a story as lovable and appealing as it is wry and twisted.

The Willoughby children (there are four of them, plus two more that they pick up along the way), who are old-fashioned yet unsentimental, remind me of the kids in the Nurse Matilda stories. Or the Penderwicks. Roald Dahl will also come to mind. The children themselves frequently cite classic children's literature. But despite all these references and echoes - some explicit, others deliberately implied, and at least one sniffed out by a perSnickety fellow author - The Willoughbys stands on its own.

Will there be parents who recoil from the Willoughby children, who wish their (hilariously) detestable parents dead? "I'm wondering," Jane said, "would a crocodile eat a person in one gulp? Or in chunks?" Or who recoil from the Willoughby parents, who are indeed detestable (though hilariously so)? "Two tourists were eaten in huge gulps but it was not sad at all because they were French." I hope not. Because, you know, "hilarious" means "just joking, you dolts!"

My kids are off with their aunties and uncles splashing in rivers and having scavenger hunts in the woods. But when they get back, I am reading this book to them as soon as possible. And as long as Bob and I don't run off on a vacation of our own and try to sell the house out from under them, I won't worry about them getting any ideas!

No comments: