Whimsy is a hard thing to pull off. Too much and you feel like you’re choking on a mouthful of cotton candy. Too little and it feels token or insincere. But my goodness when it works it WORKS! Katherine Rundell is my new favourite wizard of whimsy.
As a baby, Sophie washes up on the shores of London in a cello case, one of few survivors of a shipwreck. She is discovered by the scholarly Charles, who adopts the baby despite Child Services claiming that a single man cannot possibly raise a female child on his own (keep in mind it is the early 1900s). Charlie and Sophie form an unusual and touching family unit. But when the authorities threaten to send Sophie to a proper home for girls, the duo runs away to Paris in search of Sophie’s long lost mother. There, Sophie discovers a secret world of orphans and runaways living on the rooftops of Paris. Is the mysterious Matteo the key to discovering her secret past?
Charlie and Sophie are such an odd, lovable pair’ eating off old books, reading Shakespeare and hatching wild plans. I loved how thoroughly dedicated they are to each other. A tender father-daughter story can be hard to find in middle grade fiction. This one was unlikely but perfect. Once we get to Paris we see less of Charlie, and I found myself missing him sorely. Plus the ending, while satisfying for Sophie, is open-ended for Charlie. My biggest complaint about Rooftoppers was that the ending was a bit rushed and left a pretty big loose end blowing in the wind.
Rundell has created a fascinating world on the roofs of Paris. The life of Matteo and his other orphaned friends is described in gritty, realistic detail, involving hunger, theft, and injuries, yet it is to the author’s credit that it also comes across as wildly appealing. It is both fantastical and realistic. As Sophie learns more about the Rooftoppers, the glamour falls away to reveal an incredibly difficult lifestyle.
There are some fantastic sentences in this book, greatly adding to the whimsical tone of the story. If I was the kind of person who made notes in books (sacrilege!), this one would be scored with underlining. There were so many sentences that I loved. Here are a few examples:
On the train: “The carriage was beautiful. Everything was child-sized, and made with the delicacy and detail of witchcraft”
On Paris: “Paris is making me feel that I should brush my hair”
Rooftoppers feels both classic and fresh, realistic and magical. Rundell is able to walk the fine line between these distinctions just as Matteo walks a tightrope between the roofs of Paris. It is hard to think of books to compare it to, but the earlier work of Kate DiCamillo and Cassandra Golds’ very fine Clair-de-Lune come to mind.
Rooftoppers is available now in paperback from Penguin Canada.