The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon is rich with promise. The pages of this beautiful book are thick and creamy. Gannon, a graduate of Parsons School of Design, illustrates The Doldrums with characters and a palette that are ethereal, eccentric and inviting. The hero of The Doldrums, which will be followed by a sequel, is Archer B. Helmsley, one of the thousands of children born every day who turns out to be a dreamer. It's easy to be a dreamer when you live at 375 Willow Street, a house that belongs to Archer's grandparents, Rachel and Ralph Helmsley, renowned explorers and naturalists. Filled with the souvenirs and artifacts from Ralph and Rachel's exploits, 375 Willow Street is frequently mistaken for a museum. Archer fills his days having conversations with the various taxidermied creatures in the house and reading from the vast library. Unfortunately for Archer, his mother and father are not dreamers, explorers or naturalists, exploits they consider to be abhorrent.
Archer's mother, a busybody and pseudo-scoialite, has him on house arrest, especially after the disastrous dinner party with Mrs. Murkely, the new teacher at the Willow Academy. Mrs. Murkley is straight out of a Roald Dahl novel, calling to mind Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the evil headmistress from Matilda. Fortunately for Archer, there is a secret world behind the houses on Willow Street, made up of the walled gardens that connect the houses, and this is where he secretly spends time with his best pal, Oliver J. Glub. In opposition to Archer's quiet, museum-like existence, the Glub house is raucous and rich with the messiness of life. Oliver's father is the editor-in-chief of The Doldrums Press, Archer's primary source of information regarding the whereabouts of Ralph and Rachel, who have gone missing while investigating an iceberg in the Arctic.
After listening to tapes made by Ralph and Rachel describing their explorations, and having his parents clamp down on him even more, Archer determines to escape the house and have an adventure of his own. When Adélaïde Belmont, former student of the ballet and victim of a freak accident that requires her to get around on a wooden leg, moves from Paris to Rosewood with her father, a café owner obsessed with the perfect cup of espresso, a trio is formed and the advnture begins. Well, sort of.
I tried my best to like The Doldrums, but ultimately found it to be disjointed, overly whimsical and overly long. The Doldrums reads like a child-friendly literary version of a Wes Anderson movie in which quirk-ridden characters engage in vaguely poetic and noble, but ultimately eccentric and pointless, pursuits. But, I am an adult and I bring preconceived notions and expectations with me to any book I read. All the parts and pieces of a great novel - from the quiet, dreamy suppressed main character to the quirky friends to absent but influential forces in the form of exploring grandparents - are here, but they just never quite added up for me. Gannon clearly loves the world of Rosewood that he created for Archer, Oliver and Adélaïde to live in and spends many paragraphs strolling through minute details of their lives, creating a string of vignettes that never really gel into a coherent plot. The first time Archer spots Oliver through binoculars, Oliver is sitting on his balcony trying to see how many blueberries he can fit in his mouth. Archer watches, "guessing Oliver could fit at least twenty, but after number thirteen, he was beginning to have his doubts." Archer calls out to Oliver, telling him he is going to explode, to which Oliver responds, "That's impossible." That's it. That the extent of their first meeting. The connections between these two boys, the depths of their friendship and the reasons that they stay friends are never explored.
Like a museum tour, the reader wanders through The Doldrums, seeing the items on display in glass cases and reading the placards with brief descriptions but never getting to know, touch or feel the many parts that make the whole. Gannon skims over the world he has created, touching down for brief, dreamy moments, making for an airy dessert rather than a satisfying meal. The many quirks of the characters never added up to anything that made me believe they were fast friends or make like them or care about them. And, the most interesting people in the story, Ralph and Rachel, are off the page for the entire book. For me, no matter what the genre, one of the most satisfying aspects of a middle grade novel is the benevolent character who is watching out for, protecting, nurturing or empathizing with the main character. There is no one like this in The Doldrums, not even Oliver and Adélaïde. There is also no real villain or force of evil, despite Gannon's efforts to make Archer's mother and Mrs. Murkely into them. Without this, there is no tension and no suspense in The Doldrums, which, as an adult reader, is something I appreciate. That said, there are many young readers who are sensitive and seek out books without tension and suspense, and for them this book is perfect. It is for these readers that I decided to review The Doldrums, and it is for all of my readers that I decided to place my critical opinion at the end of this review. Just because I didn't like it doesn't mean you and/or your children won't!