Thursday, November 5, 2015

Review: THE MARVELS by Brian Selznick

the marvels

Who are the Marvels? I'm glad you asked. The Marvels are a family of actors, ruling over the Royal Theater in London across generations, until one them decides he doesn't like acting. Did he and his family survive the burning of the famous theater? Meanwhile, in the 1990s, a young boy named Joseph runs away from school to the home of his uncle, who lives in a mysterious house frozen in time. How are the Marvels and Joseph's uncle connected? With the help of an odd new friend named Frankie, Joseph aims to find out before his uncle sends him back to boarding school.

I loved Wonderstruck and The Invention of Hugo Cabret, so when The Marvels came out I was pretty durned excited. As always, Selznick combines art and story in The Marvels in a way that's not-quite graphic novel, nor quite illustrated text. However, unlike in his previous two books, I didn't feel like the art was well integrated with the secondary narrative (or at all, really), and the story was kinda boring.

The first half of The Marvels is really a GIGAAAAAAANNNNNNNNTIC, image-only prologue about the family the Marvels: who their founder was (a lone 18th-century shipwreck survivor named Billy) and their looong history with the theater. Y'all know how I feel about prologues, especially prologues disguising themselves as actual beginnings of a book, but this part of the book didn't annoy me *because* it was a prologue.

No, what annoyed me was the complete lack of anything resembling a story or character development. The art was fantastic, of course (Selznick can really tell a story through images; he should take up film directing), but it was basically like a giant book of begats. You know, the part of the Bible where it's all like, "This guy married this woman and begat so and so, he begat so and so, and then he begat another blah blah blah, and blah blah blah married what's-her-face and begat yada yada," and it goes on and on and on. The first half of The Marvels was really exactly like that: Billy Marvel adopted whomever (I forgot his name, something theatrical), and he married an actress and they had a baby, then that baby grew up and slept with some woman, and they had a baby, then THAT baby, miracle of miracles, also got married and had a baby, and I'm like:

(Except not actually, because unlike Mrs. Hudson my parents are very strict about in-home firearm discharge.)

The second half of the book is pretty much all text, like a regular book, and has an actual plot. So, plus side! At first it's also a pretty good story: there are Questions, like what happened to Joseph's friend at boarding school, who is this weird kid running around chasing after a dog constantly, and why does his uncle live in a house that looks like the Victorian family it really belongs to just stepped out of a holiday party to go caroling?

Yes, these are intriguing questions. If only the answers to them were half as interesting. If I was a middle-grade reader the case might have been different, but as it was I found myself pretty bored and skimming to get to the end. There is a twist, but I felt like it made the book lamer rather twisty and interesting.

The Marvels isn't awful, but compared to Selznick's other novels it felt uninspired and rushed. I don't know why he didn't break up all those damn begats, but he should have; that would have helped a lot. Or, you know, just write a novel using words! That would have worked too. Either way, I think this book misses the mark.

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