Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale

We are moving into studying Victorian England, and I was looking for a historical fiction set in those times that would be appropriate for my son to read.  However, at least our library system's holdings had quite a few Young Adult novels set in that period, but most of them had a female protagonist and seemed to revolve more around domestic and/or romantic situation, which are not the kind of books that grab my 12-year-old son's attention.  The one title I found that I thought might capture his attention was Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale.  I actually read it before I gave it to him, and I can recommend it as a good fictional novel that describes a lot of the culture of the time but still has a plot that can appeal to both boys and girls.

The story begins in 1875 with a career criminal in jail whose live was saved when the grievous injuries he suffered when trying to flee from police during a burglary were stitched together by a brilliant new surgeon using state-of-the-art techniques (like washing his hands frequently).  The trade-off, however, is that the highly-scarred prisoner is often trotted out to various scientific and academic meetings and put on exhibition to display the success of these new medical procedures.  But at one of these meetings, the thief gets an idea that will transform his life forever.  He comes up with a plan to turn himself from an impoverished common criminal to a posh member of Victorian society, thanks to another of the new innovations of late 19th century London.

The novel is really great, I think, because it has some of that Upstairs/Downstairs approach to it.  Parts of the book describe what it like to be poor in the London of that times--the perspective of Eliza Doolittle, say (although she actually comes later), or Fagin, Nancy, and the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist (although they actually come earlier).  The other part describes the lives of rich and aristocratic, who were flowering since England's power in the world was at its height.  So it raises issues about the class consciousness that existed in that time in England (the remnants of which we've seen this weekend when such a fuss is made about the Prince marrying a "commoner"-- but whose parents' Internet-based party business is valued over $50 million and who spent an estimated $500,000 on her private schooling and bought her an apartment in one of the best parts of London that is supposed to be worth $1.5 - 2 million).

It introduces other new technologies of the times and the indulgences of the rich, some very proper (such as attending the opera) and others less so (such as the popularity of Turkish opium).  There is theft and there are veiled references to prostitution, but no explicit sexual scenes.  There is also a spy plot and a little bit of political content.  Finally, as a couple of the school reviews remark, it is that rare phenomenon of a teen novel that doesn't contain any teens at all; all the characters are adults.

So it is definitely for the strong middle school reader and up.  But it really fits the bill for what I was looking for--a Victorian England young adult novel with a plot that is adventure-oriented-enough to interest our young men, but with a good bit of content that helps capture the feel of that era.

No comments:

Post a Comment