Egg and Spoon, Gregory Maguire (Candlewick, September 9 2014), takes readers on a journey through a historic Russia of myth and magic that's the opposite of that progression. It's a story that starts small, beginning in an isolated, lonely place, and becomes large and larger still, with its characters travelling every onward till even home, the ending point, will never be as small and lonely again. And, for the most part, it's a tremendously entertaining journey.
(Note on the metaphor above-- the nesting dolls are a Central Image/Metaphor within the text, such as could be the subject of an academic essay, so I didn't pick it random, nor, I see now (having looked at the Amazon page) am I the only one to use it.)
But in any event.
Round about the early 20th century, lightning strikes a bridge in the middle of nowhere, Russia, and a train is forced to stop. On the train is Ekaterina (Cat), a young lady of privilege on her way to the court of the Tsar to be offered to Anton, the Tsar's godson. Outside the train is Elena, a starving peasant girl who's mother is dying, whose father is dead, whose brothers have been conscripted. Chance, in the form of a Faberge egg beautifully decorated with scenes from Russian fairytales, meant to be a gift for the Tsar, interferes with their lives. Elena finds herself on the train headed for Saint Petersburg, Cat finds herself in a peasant hovel.
Cat never saw the sense in believing that stories were real, but when she is herded to the hut of Baba Yaga herself, she has to change her mind pretty quickly. And the story she finds herself in turns out to be a big one--something has gone wrong with the magic of Russia--the Firebird has disappeared. This misfortune is spilling over into the real world; the seasons have gone awry, and famine and flood cover Russia.
Baba Yaga, being somewhat more than a witch, is compelled to fix things with Russia, so she and Cat head to the city in the chicken-legged house. There they meet with Elena and Anton (the Tsar's godson), and the three kids and Baba Yaga set out to Do Something.
So at this point we are about 343 pages into the story. After a somewhat slow start, for which I blame the Intrusive Narrator and the heavy underlining of peasant suffering, I had been enjoying the journey, watching things getting progressively more surreal and magical (Baba Yaga is an utter joy--very puissant, in a funny way, and the two-girls-switched plot was very entertaining). At page 343, with the whole cast assembled, and the problem identified, I expected things to be a straightforward quest in which the kids would somehow heroically fix things. I was also expecting the Firebird (who is, after all, missing), to continue to be the central problem.
But there's another twist--the problem is a different one, and the solution to the problem is kind of ..... disappointing. I felt that Baba Yaga could have fixed things without the kids, or the kids could have fixed things without Baba Yaga (although they would have had transportation difficulties), and I felt that I was being given a moral lesson on how to live a good life. It's not that I demand heroic deeds in every story, and internal character growth and magical drama are plenty satisfying, and I certainly approve of people appreciating life and not consuming to excess etc., but so much self-awareness had already occurred, and so much magical drama had already happened at this point that the last hundred pages felt like a bit of a fizzle.
So it wasn't exactly a Story that satisfied me. But taken as a series of set piece on the journey, it was lots of fun, and it was a pleasure to watch things expand, all out of anyone's control! There were bits that made laugh out loud, bits that were beautiful, and bits that strained my ability to suspend disbelief, but still in an enjoyable way.
Definitely read it for the sake of Baba Yaga, if nothing else. She is brilliant. She rules the whole book.
Here's what I'm wondering about--the kids aren't exactly heroes, but rather they are passengers in a story. Will this please the young adult audience who are the target audience? I am thinking that this is one that will actually be more pleasing to grown-up readers of fantasy who occasionally read young (the sort that enjoyed Catherynne M. Valente's Fairland books). Those readers will not necessarily expect the same level of Young Character at the Forefront as an actual YA reader might. (And I bet that only adults will get the poisoned Kool-Aid reference).
But then I think of the magical wonders in this fairytale journey--images and imaginative delights that really are magical, and think that actually the best reader for the book might be the younger than YA child who loves nothing more than the escape offered by the beauties and dangers of the best sort of fairy tale--the sort who's pictures stay in your mind a lifetime.
Am I glad to have read it? yes, I enjoyed it. Will I re-read it? probably not. Would I have devoured it as a child? quite possibly.
Here's what The New York Times said, and here's what Kirkus said, and just to show another use of the nesting doll metaphor thing, here the review at Educating Alice.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.