The Willoughbys

willoughbysThere’s nothing I like better than an author who is well aware of narrative conventions. (I am mulling over Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor, as we speak, so I am immersed in this notion.) Some authors want to reinvent the wheel; others use conventions cleverly; others — and this is one thing I love to see — recognize their debt to the conventions out loud, and play the hand as if playing a Tarot: the ingénue, the villain, the revolver, the voyage. It’s what you do with it that counts.

Lois Lowry’s terrific little book, The Willoughbys, deals itself a perfect hand for an old-fashioned children’s novel. There are four children, a baby in a basket, a benefactor, a no-nonsense nanny, some orphans, and the Swiss Alps. But none of this happens, precisely, the old-fashioned way.

The four children (Timothy, the twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and Jane), have terrible parents. Upon hearing “Hansel and Gretel”, the parents and the children hatch a simultaneous plan: get rid of each other. (“Shouldn’t we be orphans?” Barnaby B asked…. “Because we are like children in an old-fashioned book. And–” “Mostly they are orphans,” Jane said.) The children convince the parents to take a tour with the Reprehensible Travel Agency, and the parents, after hiring a nanny, try to sell the house from underneath the children, leaving them homeless.

The story of how the Willoughby children survive their parents’ attempt at kicking them out on the street, and how the Willoughby parents nearly survive their children’s attempt at orphaning themselves, is extremely funny and self-aware. The references to other books are so quick, you might miss some of them, though you won’t miss others:

“Oh, lovely!” said Nanny. “You are an old-fashioned family, like us. We are four worthy orphans and a no-nonsense nanny.”

“Like Mary Poppins?” suggested the man, with a pleased look of recognition.

“Not one bit like that fly-by-night woman,” Nanny said with a sniff. “It almost gives me diabetes to think of her: all those disgusting spoonfuls of sugar! None of that for me. I am simply a competent and professional nanny. And you are a — let me think –”

“Bereaved benefactor?” suggested the commander.

“Exactly. A bereaved benefactor with a ward. Like the uncle in The Secret Garden. What was his name? Oh yes: Archibald Craven.”

“Oh my, no, not one bit like that ill-tempered scoundrel of an uncle. I am simply a well-to-do widower who happened to find a baby on my doorstep.”

And so it goes. The lost are found (“It’s Peter the goat-herd,” murmured Tim in astonishment, “right out of Heidi! We can teach him to read and write, and then we’ll all smile and hug and say religious things!”), the good get their reward, the evil get their comeuppance, and it’s all quite old-fashioned. I absolutely loved it. The book contains not only an idiosyncratic glossary of some of the more complicated vocabulary, but a bibliography of “books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children.” Couldn’t ask for more. Go and read it and giggle in pleasure, as I did.

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23 Responses to The Willoughbys

  1. Jeane says:

    The first thing I thought here was: is this related to the Wovles of Willoughby Chase? because that one was just so-so for me. But this sounds downright hilarious! I love how it sounds so self-referencing, as well as to other well-known books.

    • Jenny says:

      It was wonderful. Not as dark as Lemony Snicket — a different flavor — but a little in the same vein. Glad I picked it up!

  2. aartichapati says:

    Oh, cute! I am glad Lowry is still writing- I know she never stopped, but I grew up and lost sight of her. I will have to get back!

    • Jenny says:

      For some reason, I never read Lowry when I was a kid. (My reading as a child was wide and intense but spotty.) I just read some of her books a couple of years ago, so this was a fun addition.

  3. Eva says:

    Ohhh, sounds like fun! The Giver was one of my fave childhood books ever, but it somehow never occurred to young Eva to look up more of Lowry’s books. So clearly I need to read this! The next time I need a comfort read, totally requesting it. :)

    Also, I loved your nonfic post & have it open in my browser to comment on. Still mulling things over!

    • Jenny says:

      This would work wonderfully as a comfort read! There’s nothing like a hat-tip to other books I love to make me feel warm inside. :)

  4. This sounds marvellous and so fun! I must read it and hopefully soon.

    • Jenny says:

      It was tremendous fun. It’s a short, quick read, so it could slot nicely as a palate-cleanser between other, longer works.

  5. Alex says:

    I’ve heard good things about this one before. Sounds somewhat Lemony Snicket-ish, which is a good thing.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought of Lemony Snicket, too (perhaps the orphan motif?) but really it’s just the self-aware fun that’s the same. This book is much more upbeat.

  6. Simon T says:

    Oh, this sounds wonderful! I’ve had it on my shelf for ages – I just hope it survived the last cull…

  7. Jeanne says:

    When I reviewed this one back in January 2010, I was fresh from reading the books this one satirizes, like The Penderwicks. That made it even better.

    • Jenny says:

      The Penderwicks is a great example of a modern old-fashioned book. Her bibliography in back is all books from the past — Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna, things like that. I’d read nearly all of them. Some surprise I hadn’t tried to orphan myself, in fact.

  8. Belle says:

    This sounds like great fun. Thanks for the delectable review.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I loved this book! There are so many hilarious parts, like the fact that the mother hates adjectives — a sign that she doesn’t belong in the same book as her old-fashioned children.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I liked that part, too. The mother was the best, knitting a sweater for the cat but making the twins share one (and fight over it on Sundays.)

  10. Jenny says:

    What is oh my God yes Proper Jenny. I need this very very much. I love Lois Lowry. Indian Captive was one of my favorite books when I was a little girl although I recognize problematic, exoticizing elements in it now. I have just put a hold on The Willoughbys at the library. When it turns out to be awesome I am going to get it for my aunt’s birthday because she will love it too.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh yes (she said smugly) yes yes. This is right up your alley. Awesomeness on hold at the library for you, Other Jenny.

  11. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    This sounds wonderful – I’ve never heard of Lowry, and I have obviously missed a number of treats. Thank you Jenny!

    • Jenny says:

      Last year, I read The Giver (very good) and Gathering Blue (middling). I believe in my youth I may have read Strawberry Girl (not much memory.) She’s written a lot of books, though. This one was terrific!

  12. Pingback: Library Loot: January 30 to February 5 « The Captive Reader

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