Review of the Day: The Wright 3
I figure that if an author achieves a certain amount of fame or makes a certain amount of money, that author is fair game. I tell you this because Blue Balliett, for all her charms, drives me up a wall. Now my opinion is hardly the rule. One of my co-workers absolutely adores Balliett's books and sees them as exceedingly kid-friendly fare. I, on the other hand, am immune to her charms. I don't know why. In any case, here's the follow up to "Chasing Vermeer". A review so new that Google's images didn't even have a picture of the cover available for me to steal.
Some things hurt a little. Stubbing your toe on a chair leg. Bumping your head on a low ceiling. Some things hurt a lot. Slamming your fingers in the car door. Stepping on a tack. And then there are some things that can cause you so much pain that you almost separate from yourself during the experience. For me, such a pain comes when I read a brilliant author who writes book after book o' dribble. It's painful because it seems so very very unnecessary. I'll say right here and now that I like Blue Balliett's style. I think she's incredibly intelligent and quick with the pen and probably would be a fabulous person to sit down with and have a cup of coffee with. So why on earth does she crank out writing that cannot be honestly called anything but lazy? With more and more kids these days interested in reading really intelligent mystery books, Balliett would seemingly be the answer to a prayer. Unfortunately she bogs her tales down in ridiculous coincidences and fails to explain half the things that happen in the book. Boo and also hoo.
Since they recovered a very special Vermeer painting together not too long ago, Petra and Calder have become good friends. That would be fine except that Calder's best friend Tommy has just moved back to town and his presence has driven a definite wedge between the dynamic twosome. But when the University of Chicago threatens to divide the well-known Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright into quarters and give each one to a major museum, the three kids will have to band together to save the structure. That will mean sharing secrets, uncovering lies, and figuring out what they can do to save Robie House from complete and utter destruction.
In the Balliett books, coincidences are an integral part of the story. They tie all the elements up together and the children reading the books are delighted when they can find themselves drawing connections between a variety of seemingly unconnected events. This is a very smart move on the author's part. Sometimes Balliett will allow her child heroes to draw conclusions and connections between events and sometimes she'll just leave them hanging out there so that smart readers will pick up on them instead. In my mind's eye I can already see children hunkering down around this book with notebooks of their own writing down all the clues and coincidences they can find. Can you think of anything cooler? Balliett has the power to make every child feel like a sleuth! Okay, so that's the good side of the coincidences. Here's the bad: A lot of the time they make no sense. There's an "Invisible Man" connection running through "The Wright 3" that never comes to fruition or even makes a lot of sense. A man in a cape throws a book from a train, but this action is never explained. There's a supernatural element to the Robie House that also is left hanging, and in a thoroughly unsatisfying way. The fact of the matter is that Balliett's all about fun coincidences but not so keen to go about explaining her mysterious circumstances. On the outset this seems mysterious. At the heart of it, though, it's just lazy. So many threads and ideas are left hanging in the wind after finishing the book that you wonder if the next one will be a sequel that explains the things that didn't make sense in this book. No such luck, I suspect. "Chasing Vermeer" did the same dang thing.
Flippity-flop, here I go commending Balliett on the other hand. I love that she gives Chicago as much attention as she does. "The Wright 3" even goes so far as to mention the new Millenium Park. Floppity-flip, but the book is just so doggone indolent at times. Arg! It just doesn't seem fair that the kids are so often relying on mental projections and random pentominoes to solve the mystery rather than actual detective work. This would be all well and good if the kids were psychic investigators or something of that sort, but about the time Petra starts getting messages from something in the Robie House via her brain I felt the same disappointment that I experienced when I read Cornelia Funke's, "The Thief Lord" and discovered that a fun bit of realistic fiction was incorporating fantasy elements into its story (and poorly at that). Plus there isn't a definite mystery here. At least in "Chasing Vermeer" there was a missing painting that had to be found. In this case the kids are working together to save the Robie House, but along the way they're spying on their own teacher (for pretty unbelievable reasons) and breaking and entering. There's no clear mystery at hand and the story suffers as a result.
So here's the deal: Even though I thought the book was a mind-bendingly frustrating combination of lazy writing and thoroughly smart thought processes, I'm going to recommend it to my child patrons at the library. It feels like giving up, but at least "The Wright 3" didn't make the mistake of "Chasing Vermeer" and introduce insanely random villains at the end of the tale. Sure, this isn't the kind of book where the kids get a chance to figure out whodunit on their own, but at least the explanation of why the bad guys do what they do makes a fair amount of sense. So when it comes down to a comparison between "Chasing Vermeer" and "The Wright 3", I'm going to vote for the latter every time.