The book cover and every online summary/review compares Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s first book, Under the Egg, to Chasing Vermeer and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This comparison is perfectly apt! And in fact, I’d say that Under the Egg is actually better than one of those books. (I say this even as someone with a tattoo on my wrist from said book!)
The book opens with the somewhat gruesome death of Theodora Tenpenny’s grandfather, Jack. With his dying breath, he tells her there is a treasure “under the egg,” setting in motion a measured mystery about art, World War II, and sort-of-kind-of about self-discovery.
Theodora (or Theo) is a charming narrator. Her voice is clear and witty, slightly sarcastic, and precocious in the way that essential to good middle grade fiction. The friend she makes along the way, Bohdi, is the child of ridiculously famous movie stars, but rather than falling into some lame caricature of a rich kid, Bohdi is inquisitive and smart and has a sense of humor to match Theo’s. The two characters are immensely likable and their dialogue is really fluid. I hadn’t realized how much I had disliked the stilted this-is-how-I-think-kids-should-talk dialogue of the last couple of books I read until I read this book and was reminded that dialogue in middle grade can sound natural.
The plot is just preposterous enough to be fun and interesting without being too unbelievable. The book puts its toes right up to the crazy line, but stays on this side. The mystery of the plot is mostly just figuring out how this painting at the center of the story got to where it was. We are convinced of its authenticity fairly early, we are left with what we should do with that authenticity. It’s what makes the plot seem less hackneyed, I think. There isn’t a ton of information withheld from the reader, bits and pieces are revealed in a way that makes sense.
The book isn’t perfect. Theo and Bohdi don’t really change much throughout the book, this is more of a plot piece than a character one. The adults in the book are also kind of thinly sketched. Theo’s mom is a negligent mathematical genius, which is interesting! But she does nothing for the plot. I kept waiting for her to help Theo make some big discovery, but she doesn’t. She just stays out of the way for pretty much the whole book. And the other most important adult in the book dies in the first few pages. And every once in a while you get a little impatient with your proximity to the crazy part of plot-land.
But overall I loved this book, and I think the plot is neater and the characters more likable than Chasing Vermeer and its sequels, despite my love and personal connection to the books. Fitzgerald manages to weave in the art history information in a way that doesn’t sound like the lady who got an art history degree from Harvard info-dumping on us, and the mystery moves along at a very steady pace, with an only-sort-of-a-stretch conclusion that doesn’t feel rushed.
Fitzgelarld’s website includes a quote from Kate DiCamillo declaring how surprised she is that this is Fitzgerald’s first book, given it’s quality. I agree! It’s surprisingly mature. This book, combined with Fitzgerald’s comment on her website about The Westing Game being her favorite book (a girl after my own heart) and I’m really looking forward to more from her.
Newbery prospects? I think this is too heavy on plot and light on character for the voters to single this one out, but I hope we hear more from Fitzgerald soon. And this is definitely one of MY favorite middle grade books of the year so far.