The Metropolitans by Carol Goodman, 355 pp, RL 5

The Metropolitans by Carol Goodman is a layered, richly detailed work that is a blend of historical fiction, museum mystery and  magic that readers will love to sink their literary teeth into. I was describing The Metropolitans to a coworker who wanted to know what I was reading and she replied, "Oh! Like The DaVinci Code for kids!" While I haven't read the book or seen the movie, I suppose they are similar. Goodman's book involves a hidden ancient text and the race to find it before an act of terrorism strikes a major city. Similarities, or no, what I love most about The Metropolitans is the diversity in the four main characters, the hunt throughout the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the way that Goodman weaves the King Arthur legend into her story. And, because of the many details, ideas, history, literature, and art that are included in this book, I gave it the rare "Reading Level 5" distinction. The Metropolitans is not a book you breeze through, not a book you can skim. Young readers need to be dedicated and willing to explore and research elements of the story they aren't familiar with them to get the most out of this book.

To summarize The Metropolitans in two paragraphs is a challenge, but I think I can hit the key points. Actually, I am going to cheat here and start with the summary from the jacket flap:

The day Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, four thirteen-year-olds converge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an eccentric curator is seeking four uncommonly brave souls to track down the hidden pages of the Kelmsbury Manuscript, an ancient book of Arthurian legends that lies scattered within the museum's collection, and that holds the key to preventing a second attack on American soil.

As someone who has written jacket flap content while working as an assistant to a literary agent, I can tell you that it is not easy! And this paragraph, one continuous, beautiful sentence, is a work of art. Maybe the editor or assistant editor wrote it, maybe Goodman or her agent wrote it. Maybe they all worked on it together. Either way, it's a superb summation. And there is a second paragraph, but I am going to do my job and come up with my own words now. And I will fail at achieving the brevity of the jacket flap, but there is so much in this book I just can't leave out.

The four thirteen-year-olds are a diverse group, which was something I really enjoyed about The Metropolitans. Kiku is Japanese, and working with her father as he curates an exhibit at the Met. Joe is Akwesasne, part of the Mohawk Nation, and a runaway from the boarding school where he was forced to abandon his native language and assimilate into American culture. German Walt was part of the Kindertransport that sent him to England, then America, while his parents escaped to France. Native New Yorker Madge's family fell apart when her mother died and her father started drinking. Now her brothers are living in St. Vincent's Home for Boys and she is sleeping on a Murphy bed at her aunt's apartment, staying out of the way while her aunt sleeps off nightshifts at a diner. The four meet when they witness the theft of the page of an ancient manuscript at the Met and try to stop the thief.

This meeting leads them to Dr. Dashwood Bean, curator of Arms and Armor, and his assistant, the lovely and mysterious Vivian Lake. Hesitantly determining that the four kids are the prophesied four who will be able to find the missing chapters of the Kelmsbury and, by uniting them, save America from another attack, Dr. Bean and Miss Lake send them on a journey that will have them running all over the museum and New York City, imbue them with magical powers and put them in the dangerous path of Mr. January. And, as they find the missing pieces of the manuscript and read them together, the four children find themselves in the shoes of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and Morgaine as they make their way through the Hewan Wood to the Maiden Castle where the Lady of the Lake is imprisoned, writing their story as they live it.

The layering in of the Arthurian legend is where the magical aspects of The Metropolitans appear. Each child becomes one of the four legends, and who Goodman pairs up will surprise and delight you. In taking on the characteristics of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and Morgaine, they also gain magical powers like understanding any language, spoken or written, and the ability to become invisible. One of my favorite passages of The Metropolitans comes when Kiku strikes out on her own to find one of the chapters of the manuscript and is invited into a tapestry, wandering through a verdant wood that leads her to a cottage that is the real life version of a famous work of tromp l'oeil, the studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. I always love a story where a character finds herself inside a work of art, and I was especially thrilled to be introduced to a work of art I had never encountered before! I hope that young readers will research the many real elements in The Metropolitans, googling away and viewing images of the amazing artifacts, art, people and places mentioned in this rich book.

I also especially appreciated a part in The Metropolitains where, in the final chapter of the Kelmsbury Manuscript, Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and Morgaine reach the top of the tower where they find the Lady of the Lake is writing their story as they live it. Of course they want to know their futures, and the Lady tells them that their greatest gift and strength is their friendship with each other. And, while they may, "wander far from each other and even hurt one another, when it is time for the last battle, you will fight together unto your last breath." Guinevere wants to know why they can't stay together always and never hurt each other and the Lady answers with a marvelously universal response that I have shared with my students often, sparking a great discussion of literature, stories and life in general. The Lady answers, 

It is the sacrifice you must make, the sadness that makes your story complete, the ink that binds the word to the page, the grit that makes the pearl. It is your grief that will make your story eternal and keep the flame alight. Others will come in your wake to kindle the light - they will come in your name, inspired by your deeds, chastened by your flaws. For how else to raise a hero from the page if we do not see ourselves in their mistakes?

As an adult reader, I noticed a couple of small plot holes in The Metropolitans as well as more than a few moments things were too tidy and too coincidental, but I doubt young readers will notice or even care if they do. There are so many wonderful, magical, heroic, historic elements to this book and they blend together so well, it is easy to forgive and overlook imperfections. Goodman uses the final chapter of the of the book to look into the future of the four kids, piquing my interest in a possible sequel...

Source: Review Copy

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