William and Mary, by Penelope Farmer

Penelope Farmer is best known to me as the author of Charlotte Sometimes, a book I hold dear.   Back in the day, when I was young, I only knew of one other book by her--William and Mary (1974).  It was a frequent summer-at-grandparents library re-read (though not a best beloved one), and so I was very happy indeed when my sister gave it to me for my birthday this year.

And I was even more happy to find that it held up rather well, and in fact I think I like it more now than I did then.

Mary is the only girl at the English boarding school run by her parents; its a lonely life, especially when the school is empty during vacation, and it's made her somewhat socially awkward and diffident.   William is the somewhat older boy forced to spend part of his holiday at the school while his parents contemplate divorce, and to Mary's surprise, he actually seems happy to be friends with her.

And then the magic starts.

William has half a shell, that can transport the two of them into any undersea scenario inspired by art, music, photograph...and so, interspersed with the mundane but not uninteresting story of two kids racketing around an English school and its seaside environs are a series of underwater adventures.  Some are beautiful (coral reefs), some scary (the fall of Atlantis), some amusing (a whale hotel).  And in the meantime, the clock is ticking--will William and Mary find the other half of the shell in time?

It seems to me that in  most books of today, girls are not often realistic adolescents, and it further seems to me that this is a major difference in feel between kids in older UK fantasy (1960s and 70s) and books of today.  Mary mopes.  She is prey to the adolescent despair that reduces one to tears, even when there is no particular cause.   She has no special abilities, talents, or even a major role in the fantasy adventure.   As an adolescent myself, when reading it back then, I think I found this kind of dreary, and insufficiently escapist.  As a grown-up, I thought it added interest, though I wish Farmer had spent a bit more time allowing Mary to think about what she wants out of life next.

William, on the other hand, is somewhat too good to be true...He is extraordinarily mature, and never gets fussed at all.   It is quite a contrast, and almost a bit much.

As far as the fantasy goes, I do have a reservation, which is that the adventures really vignettes, not tied thematically to a larger story, and they don't progress to any point.  They just happen.   So they are pleasant, but not emotionally powerful, and they have no effect at all on events in reality.  However, because they are such a sudden, shocking change from a somewhat chilly and overcast reality, they are bright and engaging as all get out.

So it's still not a best-beloved book, but it made a nice change from heroic epicness and special kids.   Anyone who's a fan of magic invading ordinary life should look for it, although it's not in many libraries any more.  Arlington Central Library, where I first read it, got rid of all their old books when they remodeled, which I will always feel a little sad about.   However, I was pleased to see that the Rhode Island library system has a Penelope Farmer book for kids I haven't read yet--Year King--and that is now on my stack.


  1. This sounds cool, mostly just for all the undersea stuff. It's a cool premise.

    And I agree that it would be nice for more books to have heroes and heroines who aren't particularly special or meant to do big things just interacting with magic.

  2. It is nice when you can revisit aspects of your childhood through revisiting books. :)

  3. I know I read this one years ago...I remember the title distinctly (which I don't usually!) and I remember the *feel* of it very clearly, in the British boarding school style. But I've completely forgotten the plot! Perhaps due for a reread...


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