My rating: 4 of 5 stars
ONLY SLIGHTLY SPOILERY
This is a beautiful book. The physical book itself is breathtaking. Gold-edged pages with a striking blue-and-gold foil cover. The spine and back cover shows a drawing of the face of the protagonist, a Selznick signature. And the illustrations and text inside are just as lovely.
The first almost 400 pages are Selznick-signature pencil illustrations telling a story. This is followed by 200 pages of text that gives a new meaning to the illustrated story we thought we understood. This is followed by another 50 pages of illustrations to wrap up both stories.
A coming-of-age story wrapped in a mystery, we follow a boy named Joseph as he pieces together a series of clues to learn about his odd uncle and his family history. He feels such distance from his family that he feels he was born into the wrong family. The Marvels does a wonderful job at making readers realize that what they see is not always the truth. “You either see it or you don’t” is a motto throughout the book. The plot is suspenseful, surprising, and exciting.
Despite such a wonderful story, I had some problems with the female cast of characters. First of all, there aren’t many. And two that are present are sister (dresses like a boy, is confused for one for several chapters) or mother to a male character that is prominent despite the fact that he isn’t present during the actions of the story. The other is presented as cold and materialistic, though we don’t see much of Joseph’s mother. At one point, Joseph’s uncle has a throw away line of dialogue about his sister, Joseph’s mother, not needing a degree to be married to a millionaire. That could be chalked up to their perceived strained brother-sister relationship thought we don’t ever actually witness them together during the course of the book. These women see very little growth as characters, if any. Any other women in the story turn out to be fictional and mostly spoken about in the context of their relationship to a long lineage of male characters. Many will call this a good book for boys which makes this even more of a problem.
Though I hate to end on a negative note, it had to be said because this book will be/already is getting plenty of praise. But I gasped, I cried, and I poured over the illustrations referring back to them many times. Such a great story to read between Christmas and New Years as some of the present day story takes place during this time of year, too. As an anglophile, I love a story set in London in the winter filled with history, Shakespeare, and mystery.