Review of the Day: City of the Beasts
I haven't really indulged in a particularly snarky review in a while, have I? Well all that's about to change. Observe author Isabelle Allende. She's smart, beautiful, and a wonderful writer. Give her an audience under the age of 20, however, and see her crumble under the strain. The result? City of the Beasts
There is a commonly held misperception that when an adult author writes a children’s book, they somehow legitimize a formerly barren profession. Let Joyce Carol Oates or Elmore Leonard write a children’s book and suddenly “Publisher’s Weekly” is claiming that, in doing so, they’ve given new life to the entire genre. Nowhere is this falsehood more apparent than when a perfectly fine and decent adult author writes a truly terrible children’s book. Not too long ago an online movie database crowed that soon Isabel Allende’s, “City of the Beasts” would be filmed for worldwide posterity. The article claimed that this book was one of the classics in children and teen fantasy literature. When my husband brought this fact to my attention I felt a little stunned. I mean, I like to think of myself as a halfway decent children’s librarian. The idea that somehow I had missed a book that was already being hailed as a classic (by its publicist, which probably should have tipped me off) shamed me. Quick as a wink I went to my library, plucked the book from the shelves, and sat down for a good long read. A good long painful read. Allende has many charms. Many good things can be said about “The House of Spirits” or “Daughter of Fortune”. But Allende has also disproved a commonly held notion. Not all authors cross-over into the world of teen literature smoothly. Voila, the stumbling.
Alexander Cold has been forced to accompany his grandmother Kate on a vacation. If you didn’t know Kate, that might sound sweet. The problem is, Kate isn’t sweet. She’s rough, tough, and is dragging Alex on the adventure of a lifetime. The two are going into the depths of South America along the Amazon to discover the legendary Bigfoot or "Beast" of the region. While there, Alex befriends his guide’s daughter Nadia and the two bond in the face of white treachery, colonialism, invisible Indians, hidden worlds, and their own significant personal journeys. By the end it becomes clear that these two youngsters have been chosen to protect the Indians of the land from foreign invaders and that it will take all their cunning and strength to aid those who truly need their help.
Didactic children’s literature requires a particularly delicate hand. It’s all well and good if you want to tell us that the destruction of nature and native tribes is evil, but you need to do it in such a way that it doesn’t come across as some kind of holier-than-thou position. Let us compare, then, two adult authors who made the leap into kiddie lit. Carl Hiaasen wrote “Hoot”, an environmentally conscious examination of how kids can stop evil developers in Florida. Isabel Allende wrote “City of Beasts”, an environmentally conscious examination of how kids can stop evil developers in South America. So far so good. But Hiaasen gives his characters and story a bit of depth and dimensionality. He skillfully weaves together a boy’s personal journey with that of a quest of sorts. Allende, in contrast, can’t draw all the disparate elements of her tale together in a satisfying way. If she isn’t boring the reader with poorly placed descriptive passages then she’s trying to cram in too much story into too little space. About the third time Alexander is pushed to his limits and emerges triumphant you have to wonder how the kid isn’t crawling in exhaustion on the jungle floor. Part of the problem is that there isn’t any tension to this story. You don’t know what the stakes are most of the time and you don’t sympathize with the characters properly. Nadia is sometimes all-knowing all-seeing and then other times a normal kid. But worse than that, you don’t much care for her. If anyone has personality in this book, they’re probably over the age of 30. Perhaps this is just Allende’s unconscious response to writing for readers below that age.
What astonished me particularly about “City of Beasts” was the laziness of Allende’s writing. She’ll maintain a character that is annoying, for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. When the weasely Professor Leblanc is ready to turn around and go home, you expect the other people to cheer at his retreat. After all, he’s proven himself to be useless and to have an itchy trigger finger to boot. But for no explained reason, Alex’s grandmother forces him to stay. Later it’s a good thing she did but at the time it makes little to no sense at all. Characters come and go so quickly that you can’t quite figure out what Allende’s getting at. Near the beginning of the book Alexander meets a stereotypical evil girl named Morgana. You know she’s evil because she has a pierced nose, wears combat boots and (horrors) blue fingernail polish. The girl offers Alexander weed (a sure-fire sign that she’s a no-goodnik) then proceeds to steal his luggage. She then never appears in the book again and the reader is left wondering if Allende is really so shallow. Thank God there are clean cut kids like Alexander to triumph over eccentrics like Morgana, eh? I can only assume that her character must show up again in this book’s sequel, “Kingdom of the Golden Dragon”. I can’t imagine why else she’d have such a lame role in this particular book.
But let’s also look at the simplicity in Allende’s writing. You know that a bad guy is bad when he calls a woman “sweetie” or “senora” rather than her name or title (this happens approximately thirteen times in the book). It’s also a little odd that Nadia cheers on her father’s interest in another woman while his wife languishes in a Canadian sanatorium. Nadia thinks about her mother once at the beginning and then pretty much never again. And while Alex searches endlessly for a way to fight his own mother’s cancer, Nadia never considers finding a way to heal her own parent. And finally, there’s the fact that the laziest of lazy writing occurs when a character (like Alex) finds himself in a foreign land and then starts to understand the native tongue because (I kid you not) he “listened with his heart”. Talk about a cop out.
Which is not to say that there weren’t a couple of surprises along the way. Two characters you expect to be villains turn out to be heroes (before the one who isn’t white gets shot on the spot) and one of the heroes turns out to be a villain. So there was that. But I hated how in this book the strong women continually conceded to the men around them. Nadia is always following Alex, only leading him at the beginning when he’s finding his footing in this new world. The villain does unspeakable crimes all in the name of a man’s love. Even Kate, Alex’s tough-as-nails grandmother, starts obeying the ludicrous Professor Leblanc near the end. “Kate was used to the professor’s fits and his insolence, but seeing him calm and collected, she yielded authority almost automatically”. Oh spare us. Please spare us. We also have to deal with conversations between Alexander and Nadia about finding their totemic animal. “Finding your animal is less important for a woman, because we get our strength from the earth”. Oooookaaaay.
I’m not anti-New Agey stuff, but reading this book could sorely tempt me to become that kind of a gal. I’m sure Allende has many fine points. She writes very well for adults and is probably a great person to know. All the same, “City of Beasts” is truly terrible. Maybe some of the fault lies with translator Margaret Sayers Peden. I don't know. What I do know is that this is hardly a modern classic. Preachy, long-winded, and convoluted within an inch of its life, do not go around handing out this book to the kid who’s devoured all the Harry Potter books out there. It’s not the worst book ever written, but it is far far far from good.