lucky breaks by Susan Patron
Illustrations by Matt Phelan
Ginee Seo Books/Atheneum, 2009.
179 pages, hardback.
Susan Patron’s Lucky Breaks is a sequel to the 2007 Newbery Award-winning novel the higher power of lucky (Atheneum, 2006). Brigitte has opened her Café, Miles has been evaluated a genius, and Lincoln’s knots are progressing winningly. Lucky is acclimating to having Brigitte as a second mother (and vice versa). Lucky is also turning 11 and has created some expectations for herself.
And now Lucky was almost there, about to turn eleven, a dazzling change. Not the thud of ten, but flouncy e-lev-en, with its sophisticated three syllables. Write it as numerals and you have a pair of ones, sided by side; a fearless two-part beginning, the door to becoming a teenager. She pictured 11 as a swinging double door, a saloon door in an old Western; you push the sides open, bam, with both hands and stride through before they flap shut again, your childhood behind you. And her secret 11: the two straps of Lucky’s brand-new bra, her first. (1-2)
A hopeful and energetic beginning to 11 and Lucky Breaks. Only a reader of the first book could feel any sense of dread leaving the first pages or first chapter.
In lucky breaks, community continues to be a charming force. Hard Pan’s quirks are highlighted and the worth of the residents reinforced. Still, it is remote, leaving Lucky with Lincoln and Miles, boys for friends. As Lucky tells Brigitte, “[Lincoln’s] my friend, but he’s a boy. You can’t be best friends with a boy” (31). Thank goodness for the arrival of Paloma. This is where lucky breaks continues the series in its negotiating relationships; less the parental ones (though those are still present) and more about friendship-connections. “Lucky wasn’t sure how it worked to be friends with girls. Did you have to tell every secret? Where you supposed to show you were cool by using swear words?” (31); “Miles was too young, the adults were too old, and Lincoln was too serious” (63), she needed Paloma to relate. Ah, the concerns of the 11 year old girl.
The beauty of Patron’s Lucky books thus far, is while connections and meaning can be found in the stories, they are still really character-driven and encapsulated ideas are held in balance. Lucky is eleven and this is what is going on in her world. Character-driven plots are ever dangerous, of course, because if the reader finds none of the characters or their struggles endearing… Yet, many have responded to these novels, feel invested in one or more of the characters. Patron has written some marvelous/interesting characters. What interests me is how the least adorable character is the central one.
Brigitte, Lucky’s Guardian, says to Lucky, “You are smart, ma fille, but not always sensible” (157); that about sums up Lucky pretty well. Lucky is smart, she knows big words, makes brilliant observations, comprehends… She also does plenty of non-sensible things. It wouldn’t be fair to attribute the words irrational or childish to Lucky’s unreasonableness. She just does stupid things. Okay, maybe irrational might be a word to use. She doesn’t think some things through, and ignores argument or warning (e.g. Paloma and the well). In many ways this means our main character Lucky can be quite annoying.
When Lucky almost becomes unbearable, Lucky and the third person omniscient narrator seem to realize it, empathizing with (and perhaps guilt-tripping) the Reader.
Lucky shrugged. She already knew Lincoln liked her. She knew that she would never like someone like her. She would hate someone like her. She would really, really hate someone who acted like her, and she’d get as far away as she could. But how, Lucky thought, do you get away from someone you can’t stand if that person is you? (149)
What is refreshing about the character Lucky’s non-sensible-ness is how ridiculous she is—and how relatable. And if one doesn’t relate, they might feel superior to the character and that might be refreshing as well.
On the verge of turning 11 years old, Lucky makes a goal for herself: to become intrepid. Who can’t have this goal if one is an avid reader of middle-grade or young adult fiction? Or, in Lucky’s case, a fan of Charles Darwin. (yes, another mg-novel regarding Darwin.) Lucky is neither graceful nor plucky. She does not negotiate wrong turns (sometimes caused by her) with ease or courage or determination. Nor does she seem capable of going it alone and rescuing herself. She is not reflexively good or selfless. She is often careless. Lucky has a vulnerability that I have always appreciated in Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody or Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean. Lucky is utterly readable and refreshingly flawed.
The appearance of Lucky’s father as a character continues, however invisibly. Lucky thinks of him often and sometimes the appearance of those thoughts feel awkward. Near the beginning (page 4), the story reminds the reader that Lucky has feelings of abandonment attributed to her absent, uncaring father. “Abandoned or condemned,” Lucky repeated softly, thinking how sad those words sounded, how lonely. They could be words about wells, and they could also be words about people” (4). Lucky draws ever closer to Brigitte by the end of lucky breaks, but there is still no father. Then, the Lucky stories do not offer easy resolutions or even resolution at all. The awkwardness of Lucky’s thinking about her father when there seems no place in the story for him (the absence/abandonment not coming across as explanatory towards Lucky’s behavior) seems untidy, however necessary.
Lucky breaks is not as stand alone as the higher power of lucky, as it comes across as a potential for further exploration of parental dynamics which could bring us a third Lucky (thinking of Miles as well). Just the same, thematically, the presence of the absent father and its unresolved angst works. Because Life is messy does not mean it isn’t Beautiful. Because a Person isn’t perfect it doesn’t mean they are not worthwhile.
Susan Patron has an enjoyable style. (I am sure you caught the appeal of her voice in the first quote above and quotes since.) Like the first book, each chapter feels like a breath, a bead along a string that isn’t completely singular. Or are they chapters? There are numbers and then a word or two or four. Some “chapters” segue into the next smoothly while others do not (19 to 20 being the most difficult). I would have to reread to sense each chapter as a completely singular little capsule where cinematically I would throw up a dark screen with a number and words to signal an exhale and the next thought in a continuing arch.
Lucky Breaks comes across as less message-driven/explorative-of-a singular-idea than the first; at least not as thematically evident or tight; unless “make new friends and keep the old” is the message. Ah well, than I guess it is not unlike the first. Still, lucky breaks is more relaxed and comfortable.
I don’t really know what audience reads the higher power of lucky or lucky breaks, other than award committees and people protesting the use of the word scrotum in a children’s novel—wait, did the protesters actually read the book?
I would recommend anyone the attempt. The novels are not long. The writing is accessible, clean, and the illustrations are lovely*. The first novel had a rough start for me, but through persistence and reflection, I enjoyed it—found it worthwhile. I have since enjoyed both novels and I think Lucky Breaks is an excellent sequel and an excellent bridge to another Lucky (this is me hoping).
According to Powell’s Books, they have the audience aged 8-12. And I would guess a girl’s interest over a boy’s. For those interested in stories of friendship, books populated with quirky characters, and like to feel dread, humor, and the gripping need for a happy ending.
* I said this about Matt Phelan’s work in my “review” of the higher power of lucky and it still holds true for lucky breaks: “it is lovely and satisfying. Quiet, unpretentious, expressive–just right.”
aside: I read the book with the dark cover, as depicted above, and was surprised to find the brightly lit sunshiny cover on Powell’s site (shown left). Was the change to lure people in? To coordinate with the first book? To not confuse it with YA covers?… the darker cover is more fitting to the read.
my “review” (reading) of the higher power of lucky.