w/ illustrations by Terry Fan
Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Hardcover, 277 pages.
newly owned, juvenile fiction (8-12).
‘On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.’ Sophie may have survived a shipwreck as a baby, but her life really began when an eccentric but loving bachelor brought her home. Charles uses toast as a bookmark and welcomes Sophie writing on the walls. But when a child services organization threatens to remove Sophie to an orphanage, she and Charles flee to Paris to search for the one thing that might save her: her long-lost mother. (jacket copy)
If you guessed that I based this book purchase on the promise of the whimsical, you’d be right. And it imparts plenty of imaginative charm as the story cartwheels its way toward Parisian rooftops. The whimsy moves from quaint to less precious fascinations: like limited food resources, climate, and clothing. As with the tale itself, real life intrudes. It is questionable whether Charles and Sophie can go on like they are, in their own little world, and reality takes the cold and crude form of social services. In all honesty, they should’ve been just fine, but that persistent belief that her mother did indeed survive the sinking ship is finally able to be tested.
The benefit of beginning with an embrace of the unusual is the ability to continue in it. The story continually asks the reader to test probability, indeed, Charles’ family motto is: “You should never ignore a possible.” It takes imagination and Rundell proves she is fanciful in spades in introducing a world of rooftoppers.
Sophie is a strange and clever girl with fellow characters of just as appealing (read compelling) personality. However, it is in the meeting a young male rooftopper Matteo that we realize not all of Sophie’s quirks have been randomly generated. She is well-suited for this adventure, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a few fears to overcome.
While the beginning chapters leading to Paris do not feel hurried, the novel relaxes into the fascination with the rooftops and its whys and wherefores. The “mother hunt” is never far from the teller’s consciousness, but the rooftoppers are evidently the reason the story is being told. It becomes a difficulty, in this relatively short novel, when spending an evening with Matteo competes with the greater premise of finding Sophie’s mother so she isn’t separated from Charles and doomed to the cold and sinister halls of institutionalization. Matteo is an appealing Peter Pan, Sophie is not as obnoxious as Wendy (which isn’t that hard to do, but still), and the rooftops make for an intriguing Neverland. But the story must close, and it is a fairly tidy ending with plenty of daydreams for readers to detach and carry with them. My impulse though is to not look for a sequel, but an anime.
I really adore Charles, the interactions there are completely lovely. And the plucky heroine and charming voice of the storyteller make for an entertaining read. I know exactly where to keep it on the shelf, when I am not lending it out.
recommendations… ages 8-12, love the fantastic, the fairy tale, and/or a bit of the improper. If you recoil at the idea of spitting, you needn’t bother.
of note: was a 2013 read.