Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

I won't mince words: I didn't like this book.  Like a lot of readers, I was confused about what this book was supposed to be.  I knew the premise--that two girls in foster care find their guardian dead and conceal the body for weeks--but the cover was so summery and beautiful that I thought the novel must really be a sort of caper. 
I thought maybe the girls bury the body in a flowery ceremony, the way you would a pet fish, and then live a magical, adult-free summer, playing house, building sand castles, and out-smarting a bumbling child services officer. 

In fact, the book is realistic and kind of grinding.  It describes the mess the house devolves into, the sad meals the girls scrounge up, and the arguments they get into.

At first, I found it intriguing that the two girls didn't get a long.  I'm a big fan of love-hate relationships whether they're between friends, family members, or romantic leads.  Unfortunately, the character of Angel isn't developed to the point where I care if the two girls become friends.  By the end of the novel, I feel like I know the main character, Stella, (she's neat and responsible, pretty optimistic, and loves Hints from Heloise), but Angel's still just a girl who likes to listen to Portuguese music on her headphones and say things like "talk to the hand."

Also, for a long time, I had trouble understanding why the girls concealed the body.  I understood that they didn't want to be placed in another temporary situation, but that didn't seem like enough motivation to wrap a smelly dead body in a carpet and dump it in the pumpkin patch.  Can you picture children doing that?  There's a reveal at the end of the novel that provides something of an explanation but doesn't make the girls' actions any more believable. 

I feel like what this novel wanted to be was heart-warming.  It's set in a cluster of summer cottages on Cape Cod, which the girls maintain after their guardian dies.  The cottages are charming: each laid out with the same economical floor plan and decorated in summery yellows and red checks, with seashells lining the window sills.  In between half-starving, the two girls babysit the children of the renters and get gardening advice from the old fisherman who owns the property.  I wouldn't have been surprised to see the Penderwick sisters show up for the weekend if it hadn't been for the dead body in the pumpkin patch.

I've read a number of books this year that I wasn't sure what to make of (Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extrordinaire!, Liar and Spy), but in most cases, I felt like the author was in commend of the material--she was just doing something unexpected with it.  In this case, I feel like the material just wasn't workable.  The different aspects of the story couldn't be blended into anything cohesive.

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