Tuesday, August 5, 2014

2015 Contenders: Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Theodora Tenpenny's life has fallen apart as Under the Egg opens. Her grandfather, Jack, has died in an accident -- and while this would be a tragedy under any circumstances, it's worse because Jack was the one responsible adult in the Tenpenny household. Now, with almost no remaining money, a mentally ill mother to care for, and a house that's falling down around her, Theo is just trying to keep her head above water.

When Theo finds that a painting her grandfather made conceals a different painting behind it -- a painting that may in fact be an incredibly valuable Raphael -- she embarks on an adventure to try and figure out what the painting is, how her grandfather acquired it, and whether it can help save her fracturing world. An unlikely new friend named Bodhi may be able to help her, but other people are interested in the painting and its mystery as well, including the police.

The reviews of Under the Egg have name-checked some of the best-loved mystery novels in American children's literature: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Westing Game, Chasing Vermeer. In many ways, the comparisons are deserving. I really liked the gently satirical character of Bodhi, and if Theo isn't the most original protagonist, she's not difficult to spend time with either. The mystery of the painting takes plenty of exciting twists and turns. The setting is richly realized also -- a present-day Manhattan in which Theo's family no longer has much of a place.

The ending, however, has drawn some criticism, and I think that criticism is valid. Booklist gave Under the Egg a starred review, but still noted that the ending wasn't "wholly satisfying"; School Library Journal also lamented the book's "all-too-convenient ending." Other reviewers were more kind (Betsy Bird loved, loved, loved it), but I'd side with the critics in this instance. The wrap-up of the plot requires coincidences of Dickensian proportions, and after all the hard work that went into setting up the mystery, I couldn't help but feel a little like I'd been cheated.

If you're the kind of reader who enjoys the journey more than the destination, Under the Egg may be one of the best books of the year for you. If you prefer your puzzle-boxes to have more strict rules, you'll likely feel differently. Under the Egg wouldn't make my list of the cream of 2014, but its real strengths mean that it will probably make such lists for other folks. I expect there to be a lot of discussion about Under the Egg between now and Newbery day.

Published in March by Dial/Penguin


  1. I concur, Sam ...the conclusion's tidiness seemed out of synch with the richness and layers of the book's plot. The art detective aspect of the story was fascinating. Theodora and Bodhi were engaging main characters, but I found most of the secondary characters were drawn as weird for weirdness' sake (those wacky New Yorkers! ). Ultimately, a disappointing read for me.

  2. The ending infuriated me -- I was so utterly engaged until then. (I didn't have the oh-those-wacky-New-Yorkers problem, perhaps because I am a wacky New Yorker.) I was SO IN LOVE, and then this cascade of convenient deus-ex-machina tidiness actually made me feel betrayed. Wah.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who reacted that way!