Just finished reading Masterpiece by Elise Broach, and am ready to inflict my harsh judgement of it on the world:

After finishing, I went back and re-read the reviews that have been published about this book, and I can’t be as enthusiastic as most “official” reviewers have been.  While it’s a charming and engaging story, with a fair amount of suspense, it also feels to me like a story written with a wink and a nod to adults.  If I were cynical, I might think that this adult appeal were intentionally included – but I’m not cynical.  I do think that Broach wrote the story that she wanted to write, and that she wasn’t trying to draw in legions of adult fans.  But the weaknesses are there, as evidenced in the following quotes:

“When you saw different parts of the world, you saw different parts of yourself.  And when you stayed home, where it was safe, those parts of yourself also stayed hidden.” (page 268)  A prime example of telling and not showing; while there are worthy thoughts in these two sentences, they slam you over the head with their meaning.  I would have been happier if Marvin had had his adventures and shown his emotional maturation in subtler ways.  Readers aren’t stupid; they would have gotten the point that Marvin’s adventures expanded his horizons and helped him grow as a person – um, beetle, that is.

“Fortunately, Uncle Albert [a beetle] was able to maneuver his way through the vents at the back of the oven and reconnect a loose wire.  This fixed the problem, though not before the Pompadays had a heated exchange about unreliable foreign appliances, Mr. Pompaday’s lack of handiness, and the fact that if Mrs. Pompaday were a real cook, she wouldn’t be using a microwave anyway.” (page 172)  ~ This section clearly aims to amuse the adult reader – the reader who’s been married, been disappointed in his or her spouse’s shortcomings, and felt cheated by an expensive appliance that hasn’t measured up to quality standards.

There are many more specific passages like these two that feel intended for an adult audience, and then there are also the larger themes of the book.  The friendship between James the human and Marvin the beetle feels weak and underdeveloped; there are kernels of a friendship there, but I didn’t see enough connection between the two characters to create the level of bond that they are supposed to share.  But this friendship, selfless on the part of Marvin and very productive for James (he gains his mother’s love, the friendship of his classmates, and fame for catching the thief), carries with it grand lessons about being a good friend and valuing your friendship and your friend’s happiness above personal gain and recognition.  I found these grand lessons too heavy-handed and pedantic, and would have preferred a lighter, subtler touch.

I did enjoy the story, and will use the book for the 5th grade book group, since it should provoke a decent discussion.  But I don’t think it’s a “masterpiece,” and I certainly wouldn’t nominate it for the Newbery (I saw it on a layman’s list of potential Newbery nominees).  On a scale of 1 to 10, I give Masterpiece a 5.

2 thoughts on “Masterpiece”

  1. Can I just say that it seems odd that Marvin the beetle is in a beetle family that is very much like a stereotypical U.S. suburban human family? To the best of my knowledge, beetles do not engage in any kind of pair-bonding at all.

    I guess I want my animal characters to have at least some resemblance to the species they allegedly belong to. One of the things I liked about Charlotte’s Web was that the spiders were spiders, not transmogrified suburbanites — Charlotte lived alone in her web, ate bugs, died when it got cold, and left eggs which turned into hundreds of little spiders only after she was dead. I suppose if Elise Broach wrote Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte would have had a hen-pecked husband (sorry, not an apt metaphor) and 2 children, and would have been a stereotypical suburban housewife, er, housespider?

  2. Good point – I hadn’t thought of that while assembling my criticisms of the plot. But it does explain why I had a problem with Marvin’s family…

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