Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, 272 pages, RL 4
First reviewed on 9/24/10, Lesley L.L. Blume's book was a wonderful discovery to me, the kind of book I know the 11-year-old-me would have loved with Cornelia and Virginia becoming fast friends. As it is, I recommend this book to young readers whenever I can. A magical, moving story that travels the world.
When I was a kid and reading chapter books some thirty years ago, a book like Lesley M. M. Blume's Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters qualified as a magical book for me. There wasn't much fantasy for kids being written in the late 1970s and early 1980s (that I knew of - and I am sure I missed many shelves of great fantasy for kids, contemporary to the time or otherwise.) There was science fiction (A Wrinkle in Time.) There was old fantasy, like The Chronicles of Narnia. But I honestly don't remember reading anything else as a kid that was really, truly magical fantasy. For me, the magic came from stories like From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. These were stories of young heroines falling (or running) into a mystery and an adventure, all the while being watched over and guided by a benevolent elder. Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters is the direct descendant of these Newbery winning books. It has the very elements that sparked my interest as a child as well as the exotic (to me) setting of New York City, which is why I loved it immediately and immensely. On top of that, the fact that Cornelia is a bookworm who wants nothing more than to sit in her room and learn new, obscure, multisyllabic vocabulary words endeared her and the book me all the more.
Cornelia S Englehart's story begins with a miserable play date which, over snacks, takes a turn for the worse. Not only is Cornelia a shy child who prefers books to people, but she is the daughter of the gifted and very famous classical pianist Lucy Englehart. Her father, whom she knows of but has no contact with, is also a famous concert pianist. Cornelia has been used as a stepping stone to get to her mother so many times that she is wary of contact with any new people. And, on top of this, her mother is constantly traveling for work or practicing in her music room, leaving Cornelia on her own. Cornelia rarely sees her mother and spends most of her time fending off the nosy Madame Desjardins, her nanny, with a very unique weapon. Although Cornelia loves reading books,
her interest in dictionaries and complicated words had more to do with warding off people who tried to strike up lengthy conversations with her. Her life was simply too full of grown-ups who always looked over her shoulder or pestered her or peppered her with annoying questions about her family. Long, confusing words were often her only defense against the artillery of adults who plagued her.
When a new neighbor moves in and attaches a blue plaque to her door that reads, "ATTENTION! CHIEN BIZZARE," Cornelia's interest is piqued. A few days later Cornelia helps to capture the "chien bizzare" (a French bulldog with big, googly eyes named Mister Kinyatta) by tempting him with a bag of cupcakes and finds herself welcomed into the world of Virginia Somerset and her assistant, Patel.
Virginia, an aging writer from a family with roots in New York City's high society, has returned to her hometown to finish writing a novel. She brings with her memories and keepsakes from travels with her three sisters, Gladys and the twins Alexandra and Beatrice, long since deceased. Each room of her apartment is decorated to reflect the countries the Somerset sisters visited together as young, audacious women traveling alone after WWII. The first stop was Morocco in 1949, then Paris in 1950, London in 1953 and finally India in 1954. Virginia has spared no detail in decorating these rooms - the floor of the Moroccan room is covered in white marble and has a star shaped fountain/goldfish pond in the middle. Cornelia wonders at all this on her first visit as she and her hostess sip mint tea and recline on a pillow strewn daybed while Virginia tells the first of her stories to Cornelia.
As the book goes on and the rooms, countries and stories change, small changes happen in Cornelia's life as well. The four (out of eleven) chapters in which Virginia tells her stories are riveting and like books-within-a-book. Virginia herself often seems to take a backseat to her sisters, who have no problem stirring up trouble and making adventures wherever they go. Whether it is Gladys, constantly pushing her way into a world dominated by men (and getting herself and her father banned forever from the Oxford and Cambridge University Men's Club after a mishap with false mustaches and glue) or Beatrice and Alexandra's attempts to speak French (which results in the arrival of four bulldogs instead of four vases, as their mother requested, as well as private painting lessons with Pablo Picasso that ends spectacularly) the stories are hilarious and the very visual details in the writing make the countries and characters come to life. I have never been to Morocco, but I think I conjured up a pretty good image of the souk, or marketplace, that the sisters get lost in, and so does Cornelia. When she tags along with Lucy on a trip to her unconventional accountant's office, the yarn warehouse in Hell's Kitchen becomes a souk as she wanders through the aisles observing the wares.
As engrossing as the Somerset sisters adventures are, Cornelia is the heart of the story and Lesley Blume's descriptions of the loneliness and sadness that she feels in her life are heart wrenching for me as a parent, but, I am sure that as an eleven-year old I would have found her sadness compelling and a little bit noble. After hearing her first story at Virginia's, Cornelia opens up a bit an asks Virginia if it is possible to miss someone you've never met. Virginia responds,
I'm sure that you get lonely sometimes without brothers or sisters - or your father. When someone's missing from your life, it can be terrible. I think that's one of the reasons I became a writer, actually. You can't wish a person into existence in real life, but you can on paper, and those characters take on a life of their own. You can make them behave in any way that you want and you can spend as much or as little time with them as you like. But, in any case, it's important that you don't spend too much time dwelling on people who are absent, for that is a very slippery slope. More than anything, you have to appreciate the people who really are around you. Too many people realize at the end of their lives that they've taken for granted those who really love them.
This thoughtful and direct conversation helps Cornelia to begin to unfold her emotions and open up conversationally with Virginia. She tries to keep this friendship a secret from Madame Desjardins and Lucy, worried that if Lucy finds out about Virginia, she will introduce herself and instantly become more interesting than Cornelia, leaving Cornelia alone again. In one of the longest speeches she ever makes to Virginia (or anyone), Cornelia explains why she chooses not to play the piano, despite the fact that both her parents a gifted musicians,
Because I don't want to be compared to my mother all the time, and I don't love music like she does. I like listening to it, but I like reading better. Nobody ever understands that, and I always get told that I should want to be a famous pianist like her and my dad. Sometimes I wish I'd been born without fingers so no one would ask me that anymore.
This passage deftly illuminates Cornelia's experience and solidifies her bond with Virginia. I think that for many children this feeling of wishing they could be seen for who they truly are instead of who adults assume they are is universal. Early on, a child's interests and talents (or, sadly, the seeming lack of either) are labeled with a big black Sharpie and this often the only thing that adults see in these children, for good or bad. As adults, we are always bringing our preconceived notions to any given situation and sometimes limiting children and their experiences because of it. Not only is Cornelia living unhappily in the shadow of her famous mother, but the adults around her who make up her world assume that she should/would/could want to be just like her mother and pursue her mother's interests as well. Virginia is the only person in Cornelia's life who is not concerned with these things on the surface. She wants to know more about Cornelia and has the thoughtfulness to gain her trust before inquiring. As Virginia's health deteriorates and Cornelia's concern grows, Cornelia is invited into a new group of girls, ones who like to put on plays and are very interested to hear (and act out) Cornelia's stories of the audacious Somerset sisters. Cornelia even learns from Lucy that the main reason she does not take her daughter with her as she travels the world performing is because, as a child prodigy, Lucy felt like she missed out on her childhood by doing that very thing. As self-involved and indifferent as she seems throughout the novel, it is easy to see Lucy's point and understand how a parent, especially a single one, must make choices and frequent sacrifices to raise a child in the way she thinks is best.
I don't think I will be giving away too much by telling you that Virginia dies at the end of the novel. As an adult reader, I saw this from the start. However, I don't think that young readers will anticipate this turn, so keep it under wraps. In a final passage in the book, Virginia says to Cornelia,
When I first met you, many months ago, you were such a closed book, Cornelia. You wove yourself into a maze of longer and longer words so nobody could find you. And now you use words as bread crumbs through that maze. When I first met you, you used dictionaries as fortresses. Now you're beginning to understand that the words in those heavy books are also about the stories those words compose. And, like I've always told you, stories exist to be retold and shared with others. Not that I'm not impressed that you know such long words. But sometimes I think that the simplest language is the best language.
Virginia goes on to read Cornelia a passage from Charlotte's Web about friendship, helping others and trying to make one's life better through these acts. Like Charlotte, Virginia is the writer who, through her words, has tried to make Cornelia's life a little bit better. In one of her final acts, Virginia writes a letter to Lucy telling her of Cornelia's struggles and sadness. This prompts Lucy visit Virginia and, when she sees the two women together, "despair courses through Cornelia," then rage, followed by the conviction that she will never be able to see Virginia's apartment the same way again. But, this rupture in Cornelia's world makes an opening for Lucy to talk to her, to tell her of Virginia's impending death, to share her reasons for leaving Cornelia at home, and the two begin to mend and move closer to each other. Cornelia does return to Virginia's and it isn't the same, but not in a bad way. Months after Virginia's death, Patel returns to visit Cornelia, bringing with him two gifts. The first is Mister Kinyatta. The second is a copy of Virginia's last book, Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, and a note, passing the torch of storyteller on to Cornelia.
For those of you who made it this far, I'm sorry that this review is so long. One of my goals is to writer shorter, more concise reviews, but this book really deserves every single paragraph I gave it - and I didn't even begin to tell you about the escapades of the Somerset sisters! Lesley M M Blume's book is amazing, an instant classic with timeless writing, and definitely can be called the urban sister to another instant classic and favorite of mine, Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks. I plan to read the rest of Ms Blume's books as soon as I can, and started with her newest, Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins and other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate, my review of which you can read by clicking on the title.
Blume's other books are Tennyson and The Rising Star of the Rusty Nail, both of which are in paperback.