Leaving the Bellweathers, by Kristin Clark Venuti (Egmont 2009, middle grade, 242pp)
In a lighthouse far away, a butler sits down to write in his diary, dreaming of the day when he can hand over his duties to another.
"One of the largest difficulties my would-be-successor will face is due to Dr. Bellweather himself. He is most indiscriminate in choosing targets for his blustering, ranting, and glass-beaker throwing. The villagers in Eel-Smack-by-the-Bay do not share his "sense of humor." In addition to seeing to the creature comforts of this family, the duties of my replacement will include occasionally convincing townsfolk not to riot on the Bellweathers' property. This is a task that anyone not subjected to a Wretched Oath of Fealty will unlikely be willing to perform. In fact, anyone not bound by such an oath may end up joining those rioting." (page 81)
Two hundred years ago (minus 8 weeks, 2 hours and 27 minutes) Nigel Benway pledged his life, and the lives of his descendants, to two centuries of service to Horatio Bellweather and his. Now Tristan Benway is counting down the minutes until he is free to walk out the door of the lighthouse that serves as chez Bellweather. He has been the perfect butler for years, coping with the children's little eccentricities (14 year-old Spider's dangerous animals, 13 year-old Nita's bagpipes and over-zealous Good Works, and the playfully destructive antics of the young triplets), not to mention the difficult peculiarities of the Bellweather parents (a mad scientist and an obsessive wall painter). Benway spends his last weeks penning a Tell All book about the tribulations he has endured at their hands, and dreams of his own peaceful cottage (7 weeks, 1 hour and 3 minutes to go...)
But as the weeks pass, filled with Spider's albino alligators, Ninda's imprisonment of a family of circus performers (an effort to free them from oppression), and the plans of the triplets to take over the local art show (move over, Mona Lisa), Benway's resolve begins to weaken. When the Bellweather children realize they might loose him, and focus the powerful force that is their collective will on convincing him to stay, will he be able to escape? (1 week, 8 hours, and 27 minutes to go...)
Interspersed with Benway's journal entries (diverting dry) are episodes showcasing the energies and enthusiasms of the various Bellweather children. I was concerned at first that the Bellweather family might be simply a collection of two-dimensional eccentrics, but by the end, along with Benway, I was able to appreciate them as people. A very fun read, one with quite a bit of heart inside an outer shell that manages to be both facile and engaging.
(I was nervous about the Mona Lisa sub-plot. I don't like it in books when things get broken. But nothing terrible happened, in the end...and I rather liked the tidying up of the albino alligator sub-plot. The imprisoned circus performers and their tame seal was a bit much, though...I was never quite able to Believe in them. But maybe that's my own cynical fault, and the younger, fresher reader will accept them with amused and uncritical interest).
As the passage I quoted above indicates, the vocabulary, particularly in Benway's journal entries, is rather advanced, so although this is most definitely middle-grade in tone and story, it might not be a good fit for the less confident reader.
A sequel, tentatively titled "The Butler Gets a Break," is apparently in the works, which is nice to know! And other reviews can be found at Steph Su Reads and Never Jam Today.
(arc received from the publisher)