The first two pages and I’m in love. It’s going on the “must buy” list, as well as the “must give” list.
The Girl sets all fairy tale conventions on their heads while managing to retain the spirit and charm of the best. In the tradition of the door-in-the-hedge fantasy, the trip through the closet into Fairyland is inventive and whimsical. Valente perhaps pokes fun at times, but always gently: “you will either perish most painfully or be forced to sit through a very tedious tea service with several spinster hammerheads.” The heroine is a bit unconventional but not exactly drowning in misery: “she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow” and had a mother “bending over a stubborn airplane engine in her work overalls, her arm muscles bulging.” Right there, you know it won’t be traditional, but nor will it be grim modern, with boys locked under staircases, mothers with drug problems, or orphaned children scavenging food. Yet it still explores the core emotional issues of independence, identity, fear, and love, while acknowledging the place children come from is not all kindness and cookies. “One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one.“
Swooning continued as I read. Valente tells beautiful word-smithy tales. A Wyvern named “A-Through-L” (his father is the Library) deserves the award for Best Fantasy Sidekick of the Year. There’s even a list of reasons why: “Thirdly, being French in origin, they have highly refined tastes and are unlikely to seek out unsavory things to eat, such as knights’ gallbladders or maidens’ bones. They much prefer a vat or two of truffles, a flock of geese, and a lake of wine, and they will certainly share.” Of course, since they are French.
After finishing, I was mentally working out my review as I swam, and discovered I had trouble analyzing why I enjoyed this book so much. I went home, picked up the book again, opened to a page and found myself saying, “oh, I loved this part,” only to follow it with, “and this phrasing!” and exclamations of “and look how she characterizes ___!”
That’s the kind of book it is: something you remember loving and enjoying, even when you can’t quite identify why, and then when you are immersed in it again, it all becomes crystal clear.
Like a fantasy world.
“When you are born… your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living.“
Five gorgeous stars.