Thursday, July 3, 2014

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Under the Egg 
by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Publisher:  Dial  

Format: Hardback   
Copyright: 2014
Pages: 265

Genre: Children's contemporary fiction
Source: library book

From the authors website (

Only two people know about the masterpiece hidden in the Tenpenny home—

and one of them is dead.

The other is Theodora Tenpenny. Theo is responsible for tending the family's two-hundred-year-old town house, caring for a flock of unwieldy chickens, and supporting her fragile mother, all on her grandfather’s legacy of $463. So, when Theo discovers a painting in the house that looks like a priceless masterpiece, she should be happy about it. But Theo’s late grandfather was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if the painting is as valuable as she thinks it is, then her grandfather wasn't who she thought he was.

With the help of some unusual new friends, Theo's search for answers takes her all over Manhattan and introduces her to a side of the city—and her grandfather—that she never knew. To solve the mystery, she'll have to abandon her hard-won self-reliance and build a community, one serendipitous friendship at a time.

I wanted to love this book.  I really, really did. From all of the descriptions, this was totally my sort of story nirvana - art, mystery, history! However, once again I find myself completely out of step with all the people raving about how great it was.  Sigh. The description of the plot from the blub pretty much outlines where the story starts, but the details - the logic - that is where things go totally off the rails for me.

Theo is 13-years old and has been living as if it were still the great depression. From the descriptions in the book she has spent most of her life dangerously undernourished and her growth has probably been stunted (this isn't even taking into account Lyndon referring to Theo as a ten-year-old not once but twice - it wasn't clear if he was trying to annoy her or if he honestly thought she looked ten). I get the whole showing that the character is poor but resilient and creative, but has the author seriously never heard of thrift stores?  I would also assume the author has never heard of child protective services either - no teacher in their right mind would let a child in that condition and dressed like a bag lady just wander through their classrooms with no comment. 

Right - so I was willing to suspend disbelief on this point - except that Theo never really sounded like a 13 year old. Mostly she sounded at least 16, especially when you factor in all the work she does around the house. I totally get that children growing up under adverse circumstances mature more quickly (been there, done that, have the scars) but there are still limits to that, especially given that Theo talks about her life as being lonely and basically friendless - the corollary to such a state is that her social development would be also be skewed. This should have shown up in her interactions with others.  ...  Right so I can gloss over the age thing more suspension. 

But something that I really couldn't gloss over is that the mother is clearly mentally ill and in need of help. Getting the parents/authority figures out of the way so that a child can have their adventure is a common trope - but really, this one was disturbing. Angelika (I think I misspelled that) had clearly been in need of help for years and her father and daughter's response was to ignore her outside of making sure she was fed, supplied with exotic tea and didn't wander out of the house in her bathrobe? Seriously?  Let's see - NYU gave up waiting for her dissertation 15 years ago, i.e. before Theo was even born? So they have basically left this woman "living in her own head" for Theo's entire life? I find this amazingly disturbing! And no - I absolutely do not accept this as an example of "absent minded genius" - that is an amazingly bogus trope. I am an absent minded professor and I work with colleagues who are on the spectrum - guess what? If any of us, or our students, started acting like this for a prolonged period of time (a week or so), there would have been an intervention. I see that several of the reviewers out there call the mother "scatterbrained" or "reclusive" - what on earth?  I am baffled.

Also - I know this is supposed to be an ensemble cast but other than Bodhi, none of the characters seemed to be more than a catch phrase like tattooed librarian. They were all deus ex machina - there to provide Theo with information or to keep the plot moving forward. I even have the feeling that Bodhi was there just to make sure the story moved to fruition. 

And all of that is a really shame because the discussion of the art history and the Holocaust were fantastic. Those parts were well done and informative. The book could totally spark the interest of a young reader in those topics.

Actually one thing that bugged me - the characters discuss the online and database resources for tracking down Holocaust victims and survivors (which somehow Jack never learn about ?!?!?) but they never once mention any of the online resources for stolen art (like or the online database created by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that uses the Nazi's own records and photographs of the looting ( ? They should have at least used the database to see if their painting was listed (and if it was one of the painting seized from Hitler's main stash it sure should have been). 

Sorry - two more rants then I will stop - I had real problems with how the mystery was resolved and how the book ended. The resolution to the mystery was absurd - so absurd that the book hung a lampshade on it trying to talk it's way out of being perceived as absurd. This seems to have worked because again, some reviewers are all "oh, well okay that makes it make sense." Bull pucky!  It is still absurd - it was as if the book had now lost interest and wanted to wrap things up quickly.  And, the way the book ended was a combination of urgh and angry. It made me want to hunt down a fictional character and get him arrested for child endangerment. Logic fail !

So - how to rate it.  For me the book was a two and a half claws - there were some things I really liked - the mystery, the history, etc., but life of the characters and illogical structure - argh! - killed my enjoyment. In my mind it does not compare with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? (Which at least one reviewer said was more contrived then this story!) For kids - who could suspend their disbelief over some of the things that made me so upset - it would probably rate much higher. 

The problem I have is that the messages sent in the book about poverty and mental illness are not ones that I want kids to take away. This is a real deal-breaker for me. In the end, I think I will show it to my son (11) to see if he is interested (but I won't 'recommend' it to him) and if he reads it I will be interested in seeing what he thinks. I will also want to have several discussions with him about what is going on in the book - which I suppose is a somewhat successful thing for a book.  Still frustrated though - I will be disappointed if it wins awards at the end of the year. The only people who are going to buy this as a realistic and informed portrayal of the challenges of poverty are people who haven't experienced it. Sigh. Gosh - now that I think about it, this book really did follow the children's awards checklist for elements.  That makes me even grumpier !!!

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