THE GREAT UNEXPECTED
is now in paperback!
When you get right down to it, The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech is a story that's been told many times before. What is wonderfully amazing about this book is the way that Creech tells this story, from the inside out, almost. In fact, as I listened/read this book I felt like the story was a 57 piece puzzle where you couldn't tell what the picture was until almost every piece was in place. Creech begins her book with this quote, "So much world all at once . . ." by Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska and two overheard conversations between parents and young children which illustrate how ungraspable and indescribable the abstract concepts of "truth" and "real" can be. This is our clue to the nature of Creech's storytelling style in The Great Unexpected. There is "so much world" at once in this book that it takes most of the novel to learn Creech's organizing principle, which, at its heart, is the often told story. What is truth and what is real is questionably presented to us through the eyes of our narrator, the young Naomi. In her review for the New York Times, Elizabeth Weil writes that "little of what takes place [in The Great Unexpected] is realistic except what the children feel" and commends the emotional intelligence of her story, sharing more about the characters than the plot itself. That's because The Great Unexpected is a mystery wrapped around a mystery with two stories, each of which gets a specific font, unfurling consecutively.
Naomi and Lizzie are the two main characters of the book and, besides the fact that they are the same age and both orphans, they couldn't be more different. Despite this, they are friends. Lizzie is a bit of an doodlehead who wanders through the town of Blackbird Tree singing "lar-de-dar" most of the time and talking too much the rest of the time. Naomi is a pragmatist with an arm that was crippled when, as a three year old, a dog attacked her. Her father rescued her but lost his life doing so and she is now being raised by the sensible but loving Nula and Joe. It seems that almost everyone in Blackbird Tree has had a hard life but, as Naomi says of them, "We didn't think we were tragic, we thought we were normal. All any of us wanted was for somebody to care about us, and if we couldn't have that, then at least somebody who wouldn't be too mean and who would feed us from time to time." The book begins with a body falling out of a tree, knocking Naomi over. Laying still on the ground the body asks, "Am I dead?" The body turns out to be a boy named Finn. Naomi finds herself thinking about him all the time and expresses some sweet and subtly lovely things pertaining to one's first crush. She also develops a fierce jealousy of Lizzie and any attention Finn pays to her.
But, this is only one of the many threads of this story that forms the larger tapestry. The big picture, the old story that Creech tells from the inside out, the one that has been told in various ways in books like Gloria Wheelan's wonderful Listening for Lions, is, without giving too much away . . . a story of jealousy and estrangement between sisters over a boy and the bequest of an inheritance that changes everyone's lives and creates new families in the end. The concurrent story takes place in Ireland and consists mostly of conversations between a Mrs Kavanaugh and a Miss Pilpenny and occasionally Mrs Kavanaugh's solicitor, Mr Dingle with the occasional mention of a Finn McCoul. The link between the story lines and characters is slowly revealed and the web is a wide one.
While I found this book almost completely befuddling at first, I thoroughly enjoyed letting go of my conventional storytelling expectations and going wherever Creech chose to take me. I couldn't figure out the time period, the geographical setting, the ages of the characters and more, but I tried to ease into the great unexpected, a phrase that pops up a few times over the course of the book, first as the title one of the books on Naomi's summer reading list that is supposedly "too long and too hard." Midway through the novel I began to make connections and see my way to the end of the story, although I'm not sure what younger readers might make of The Great Unexpected. Is suspect it might take some adult unraveling and assistance for them to make all the connections and get the most out of this innovative book.
The lovely cover art is by Zdenko Basic, who also did the cover art for a favorite of mine, Seven Sorcerers, among others.
Source: Purchased audio book, review copy