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Friday, August 22, 2014

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Book Review: Under the Egg

I picked up Under the Egg on a whim at the Los Angeles Festival of Books while I was waiting for my next panel to start. I spent the next two hours turning page after page, pausing only once to change my location from a bench in the unforgiving sun to a cafe table under an umbrella. The jacket description references The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I find the comparison to be rather apt. Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s middle-grade mystery of forgeries, smuggling, and stolen art is full of the same wonder and larger-than-life adventure that made E. L. Konigsburg’s novel a classic.
Theodora Tenpenny, called Theo, and her mother have been struggling since the death of her grandfather, Jack. They subsist in their old Victorian home on the last of Jack’s savings, beets and pickled vegetables from their garden, and eggs from their chicken coop. As her mother stays secluded in her room in an algebraic haze, Theo is barely managing to keep their home together, but a directive from Jack in his last breaths may change all that. His clues lead Theo to a hidden painting in their housea painting that may be worth a fortune if she can prove its authenticity. But as she uncovers the truth, she discovers her grandfather was concealing much more than just a painting. 

I was drawn to Theo from the opening pages as she discovers a pair of shoes sitting on a mailbox as if they were waiting for her. Theo is not affluent; in fact, she and her mother only have $463 to their names, which is in immediate danger from Mom’s expensive tea habit. Theo is intelligent, hard-working, and a little proud with a few rough edges. She’s a chicken, her grandfather always told her. Chickens dig in, they roost, they don’t stop scratching until they’ve found what they’re looking for. Its these qualities that Theo and her mother must rely on to keep their house and their lives from falling apart.

I marvel at books that can find the adventure in an otherwise mundane life, and Under the Egg achieves just that. Theo’s pursuit of the mystery behind her grandfather’s painting is a grand hunt that takes readers across New York City and its cultural landmarks, from a swank auction house, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even the New York Public Library. We are introduced to a thirteen-year-old who is on summer vacation and cut off from the world, secluded in her Victorian home with only her mother for company. To solve the mystery of Jack’s painting Theo must go to many places and talk to a wide variety of people (Fitzgerald delights in breaking expectations with her eclectic cast of characters), and by the end her world is busted wide open.

Early on she gains a trusty sidekick in Bodhi, the bored teenage daughter of celebrities. She walks a very fine line between endearing and obnoxious, but her enthusiasm and blunt manner are part of her charm. Not only that, but she’s a loyal sleuth’s assistant and friend.

“Where are the parents?” readers often ask when main characters in children’s books are notably without adult supervision. I think we often forget how easily we duck our parents as children when there are adventures to be had. Theo and Bodhi’s parents are present, but all notably absorbed in their own lives, and thus the girls have free run of the city.

Perhaps one of the most important characters in Under the Egg is the painting that Jack leaves for his granddaughter. Art history, particularly Renaissance era, features heavily throughout the storyso much so that I was surprised the book wasn’t accompanied with illustrations. Fitzgerald is so elegant in her descriptions of the paintings that visual aid is hardly needed; at one point, I surprised myself to realize I’d identified a classic painting before she’d even finished describing it. Fitzgerald’s intimate knowledge of art and Manhattan give the story much of its substance.
But it’s not all art history. As Theo delves deeper into the mystery, she discovers the painting carries a dark legacy, including being smuggled through Europe during World War II. The painting’s true history reveals a tragic, bittersweet past, culminating in a twist as Theo learns her true mission. For a while there it looks like Theo may not achieve the happy ending she hopes for, but Fitzgerald is careful to leave no loose ends.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s a relatively quick read full of quirky characters, efficient but descriptive prose, and peppered in equal parts with humor and sadness. It’s a must read for kids who love a mystery or have an interest in art or history. If someone wanted to, say, adapt it into a film (preferably an independent production), I wouldn’t object. 

Title: Under the Egg Author: Laura Marx Fitzgerald Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Middle Grade Recommendation: Yes Best Reader Audience: Ages 8 and up Final Rating: Five out of Five Dozy Foxes

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