Oh, how I needed this book. Phoebe Stone’s charming family story/mystery novel came at the perfect time. I was suffering from a bad bout of reader’s ennui when I stumbled upon The Romeo and Juliet Code and I can happily say that Felicity Bathburn Budwig, the charming narrator of this first-class middle grade novel, has pulled me out of my funk and put a smile back on my face.
Eleven-year old Felicity is left in Bottleby, Maine by her parents, loving and glamourous Winnie and Danny, who have a secret that keeps them far away and out of touch. This isn’t the only secret keeping Felicity up at night. Her Uncle Gideon, at times fun and goofy, is struck by extreme bouts of melancholy, the root of which is unknown, but Felicity believes it has something to do with her father, Danny, and is the key to why Gideon refuses to play the piano. Throw in the mysterious Captain Derek who never comes out of his room and beautiful Aunt Miami who is obsessed with Romeo and Juliet and yet is too shy to take the stage, and you can see why poor ‘Flissy,’ as she has been named by her new family, yearns for home. Determined to do her parents proud, Felicity sets out to solve each mystery, especially the mystery of the letters Gideon receives from Portugal, which are clearly written in her missing father’s handwriting.
One of the exercises I do with my creative writing students involves making a list of your favourite things and then combining them in unexpected ways into one story. If I were to boil this book down to its elements, the list sounds an awful lot like my favourite things: English heroine, Frances Hodgson Burnett, WWII, seaside setting, quirky characters, family secrets.
I loved everything about Felicity, who is a model British heroine, right down to her impeccable diction, good manners, and plucky attitude. Emotional authenticity is my number one concern with middle grade, and Stone is bang on. Take, for example, Felicity’s attachment to her old bear, Wink. Although Felicity realizes that at 11, she is perhaps a bit old to be carrying around a bear, he is familiar and she is surrounded by the unfamiliar. Through a series of well-chosen flashbacks, we get a sense of Felicity’s life with her parents, which is often uncertain and lonely, thus her attachment to Wink makes perfect sense. It is only through her friendship with Derek, a handsome cousin recovering from Polio*, that she is able to move past her attachment to dear old Wink.
I must say, although I like the cover- as I like all covers that feature footwear or fun socks- it is completely misleading. This cover suggests a contemporary love story and gives no indication of the time period (1941), content, or subject matter. I’m not even sure who those feet are supposed to belong to, as Felicity spends most of her time in dresses and never once do her and Derek get so close as to intertwine their legs on a picnic blanket. This is a blatant case of curb appeal, but at the expense of the story. I’ll be curious to see how my customers and students react to the cover.
Regardless, I loved this book and I’m sure many readers will, too. The short chapters, flashbacks, and layered secrets will keep a wide range of readers engaged throughout. It has enough mystery to keep mystery lovers happy and enough WWII history to keep history buffs satisfied. There is even a hint of romance. Given the setting and situational drama, The Romeo and Juliet Code would make an interesting companion to Kit Pearson’s beloved The Sky is Falling.
The Romeo and Juliet Code is available this month in hard cover from Arthur Levine Books, and imprint of Scholastic.
*Shades of The Secret Garden, though Derek is far more palatable than whiny Colin.