by Maryrose Wood
Harper Collins, 2010
How much fun was this book? A lot. A lot of fun, which was exactly what I wanted right now. It is light, short, and cute. And as advertised, the plot is sufficiently mysterious to keep one hooked (very important currently; for reasons one might expect, my focus is rather shot, and I am grateful for the distraction when I can find something that holds my attention).
Penelope Lumley is a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, sent off on her own to Ashton Place to respond to the advertisement for a governess. Upon getting there, she finds the inhabitants peculiarily reluctant to discuss the three children she is to be in charge of, and things just get stranger from there. Luckily, Penelope has the gumption, cool head, and keen intelligence of a Swanburne girl, as well as the requisite love of animals and small children, and is not fazed by much. When she finally meets her charges, things are not at all what she expected, but she takes on the challenge -- a challenge that will include teaching three children how to appreciate fine literature, how to do math, and how to control themselves when a squirrel-chasing opportunity presents itself.
One will need to suspend disbelief pretty handily, but the story is so charming and fun and well-written that the suspension is not a challenge except in certain places where one thinks, Really? I just... really? Very occasionally -- especially towards the end -- I ran up against something or other that stretched even the very generous leash I'd given the internal logic of the book. I think my main problem with the one scene I couldn't get behind, no matter how I tried (and I tried; I liked the book enough to work at maintaining credulity) was that the villain(s) up to that point hadn't really presented themselves as being as villainous as their actions appeared. That's as specific as I can get without major spoilers.
The writing, especially, is what charmed me. Penelope is a great character, but the way the book is written, in a very cheerful, firmly tongue-in-cheek, and faintly sensational/melodramatic manner, is pitch-perfect. The narrator occasionally breaks the fourth wall with a clear understanding that kids reading the book nowadays are living in a very different historical moment. It allows for foreshadowing that is strong without seeming heavy-handed. The humour is dry and straight-faced, and I loved it to the point of gleeful out-loud giggles. This, along with the mystery (of which we are really just starting to get hints) kept me thoroughly entertained. Also, the multitude of references to classic literature? Probably over the target audience's head, but may inspire middle-graders to look up Longfellow and Shakespeare. (It may inspire me, too.)
Overall, a rather original idea, well-executed. Recommended for kids and adults who want something a little light and silly, but who are happy to get invested in a character or two -- however, very literal-minded children may not enjoy so much, because there are definite suspensions of disbelief that have to be maintained to make the book enjoyable. I'd recommend especially to those who have enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events, for example; I actually quite prefer this book to those, but there are parallels to be drawn. This is clearly the first in a series; as above, the reader only realizes at the end that there's a much deeper, more sinister game afoot than either the reader or Penelope has realized. The second book is The Hidden Gallery, which takes Penelope and the Incorrigibles to London.