Fuse #8

Monday, May 01, 2006

Review of the Day: Claire-de-Lune

There is a very quick test you can do to determine whether or not you will enjoy the children's book, "Clair-de-Lune". I will now read you a passage from the novel. Ahem. "For when a child sleeps, a little magic bird flies out of the child's heart and roosts nearby, sometimes on the bedpost, sometimes on the windowsill, sometimes - who knows where? - breathing in and out swiftly and murmuring to itself. When the child wakes, the bird returns, flying into her heart the very moment before she opens her eyes". This is from page 22 of, "Clair-de-Lune". Did you like it? Yes? No? I was in the "no" camp myself. By and large when I review first time authors or authors who haven't written in a very long time I avoid reviewing them altogether if I don't like their work. It's hard enough getting your book published by a big-time publishing house. Think how awful you'd feel if some two-bit hack of an Amazon.com reviewer set about tearing your baby, the book you've worked and slaved over for who knows how long, into little itty bitty shreds. You'd be devastated. So if you are reading this Ms. Golds, please stop right now. I am entirely certain that you are charming and that if I were to sit down and have a nice cup of tea with you we could have a lovely conversation about the state of modern publishing. Unfortunately, I was not wholly taken with your book. It is very popular and many people who are not myself enjoy it quite a lot, so my criticism will be just the tiniest of drops in the wide ocean of children's literary reviews. I don't like hurting the feelings of authors and you seem like you have loads of talent.

The plot. As the first sentence states, "Once upon a time - one hundred years ago, and half as many years again - there lived a girl called Clair-de-Lune, who could not speak". And we're off! The girl lives with her stern grandmother in the attic of a large and impressive boarding house. On one floor is a dance studio where Clair-de-Lune takes ballet lessons like her mother and her mother's mother. When the child was just a baby her mother was the most talented dancer of them all. Then one night she died after performing an impressive dance and her little daughter was mute thereafter. Now Clair-de-Lune is attempting to speak but finds that she cannot. Just the same, she makes the acquaintance of a little mouse by the name of Bonaventure who has a dream of his own. He is quite the dancer himself, and he dreams of someday building a mouse repertory company of his very own. He has been watching the dance class on the floor below and he is impressed with Clair-de-Lune's abilities. Making it his goal to help her become happy he introduces her to the kind monk Brother Inchmahome who will help her to speak. In learning, however, Clair-de-Lune must face up to her fears and confront those parts of herself she's eluded and avoided until now.

You know what's big right now? Nostalgia. It's sweeping the children's publishing world like a retro-Victorian plague. What won the 2005 National Book Award for young person's literature? The Elizabeth Enrightish, "The Penderwicks", by Jeanette Birdsall. What title from the pen of Kate DiCamillo is working shamelessly at luring innocent adults with its old-timey feel and pictures? "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane". With that in mind, "Clair-de-Lune" is just the latest example of a very successful trend. Author Cassandra Golds herself seems at times to be channeling Barrie's, "Peter Pan" with mixed results. Remember that point in Peter Pan that talks about Mrs. Darling's kiss? There's a lot of that feeling in "Clair-de-Lune". There's even a moment that seems like it's a direct reference to Oscar Wilde's, "The Happy Prince". I was impressed by the reference and if you like Wilde's story, that may say quite a lot about how much you'll like this one.

By and large Golds's ideas are good. It's just her writing that needs some work. There was one passage, actually, that was very well-written. Throughout the story, Brother Inchmahome is having Clair-de-Lune think up reasons why she does not speak. At one point she comes up with, "If I do not speak, no one will ever really be able to dislike me, because no on will ever really know me. If I do speak, then it will be possible for people to dislike not just the person they think I am, but the person I am". There are some interesting thoughts at work here, but they are buried under just as many problems. For example, there is the fact that Brother Inchmahome has the ability to listen so well that he can hear what essentially comes down to Clair-de-Lune's thoughts. But this book is all about the magical realism, so this kind of objection comes across as petty. Far more disturbing is what this book is saying about mute people. Apparently if you cannot talk, no one can ever really, "know you". Writing stuff down? Not the same thing at all. You're only ever "known" to someone if you can speak the same language as them. A rather disturbing message to be sending to the young `uns, no? You can often see what Golds is trying to say. It's just the saying itself that can get tangled. There is the occasional non-sequitor as well. The fact that mice have the ability to figure out when one of their number has died and where to find the body psychically is a bit peculiar.

And now we come back to the writing. The passage I began with, the one about the bird that flies out of the chests of children every night, is one such example. There are thousands more. We keep returning, for example, to a mouse from the country that is struggling to make it to the big city to dance with Bonaventure. "This mouse had fur like black silk and a soul so beautiful, so vulnerable, and so sweet that he was loved by all who knew him". A mention of this beautiful soul appears no less than four times. So what you need to ask yourself is whether or not you would like to read this book to a child full of this type of language. Your child may love anything and everything to do with ballet and not care a jot for insistent somewhat saccharine repetition. If so, all power to you. Nothing I say here is going to change your mind. If, on the other hand, you would prefer to avoid books that wade knee-deep in sugar, perhaps this is not the book you should go about purchasing.

But enough of this adult critical mumbo jumbo. What will kids think of this book? I did ballet for seven some years when I was a little girl. Would I have liked this book? Heavens, yes! Yes, indeed. I would have adored it. Beautiful speechless young girl who dances more beautifully than anyone else and has talking mouse friends? Gorgeous flying magical birds, gypsy fortune-tellers, and a handsome monk with a secret? What's NOT to like? You would've pried this book from my tiny desperate hands only with the greatest of effort. Dreamy-eyed children will probably hold this story close to their hearts and love it desperately for years to come. There are those kids out there, however, who will find the premise icky. And there will be adults like myself who'll secretly slip books like, "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "The Princess Academy" into the hands of their child patrons with the hope of distracting them from, what will someday be known as, the-dancing-mouse-book. For all its charms, "Clair-de-Lune" has more flaws than fine qualities. Ms. Golds is bound to do great things. Just give her time.


At 2:36 PM , Blogger web said...

Thanks for the heads up. I'm running fast from this one.

And aren't you thoughtful! The relationship between the critic and the author can be a strange one, especially when you don't know when the author might happen by your site....

At 3:22 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I fear the worst. I try to give some slack to the first-timers, but this book has gotten too much press for me to ignore it. Hopefully she'll ignore all criticism but the professionals.

At 7:25 PM , Blogger Kelly said...

Aw, I liked this one Fuse :) (And I say this as not a fan of the other nostalgia books, particularly Camillo's). I found it a refreshing take on the ballet books I read as a child. The pain and truth of ballet as opposed to the myth. I probably would have liked it even better, now that you mention it, if the mouse were another human being, practicing say, salsa, or something. But, nonetheless, I liked the book.

At 10:13 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I know. You're not alone either. I seriously considered not reviewing this book, but then EVERYBODY started saying how sweet it was and well.... you know. I just can't sit silently seething anymore. Just ain't my style. But I promise not to post continual epistles against "Claire-de-Lune" and its ilk. Just one end-of-the-year blasting and then you'll never hear a peep outta me on the subject again. Unless the movie rights get purchased. Then all bets are off.

At 11:09 PM , Blogger Kelly said...

Hey, I appreciate your style, Fuse! Keep on reviewing. You're a better man than I.I don't post negative reviews unless it's an easy target (Berenstain Bears or "Shadowmaster," for example)

Keep on doing it. I, for one, really appreciate your reviews. I was too wimpy to call out "Tulane."

At 8:08 PM , Blogger lili said...

Ooh. i hated Tulane. just wet and boring and soppy. unlike Despereaux which i LOVED. i wonder what the difference is. i spose Despereaux had a rather wicked humourous undertone...

(also LOVED Clair de Lune. mice and ballet. unbeatable combination)

At 10:02 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Mice, ballet, and little birds that fly out of children's chests at night.


Nice blog, by the by. The Australians are seriously catching up on American kiddie lit blogs (and have already trumped the number of British ones I know of).

At 6:08 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it is worth, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (http://bccb.lis.uiuc.edu/0506star.html) starred it this month.

At 5:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a great pleasure to read someone responding to a children's book with such passion. I like Clair-de-Lune -- actually, mainly for its passion come to think of it, so it's not surprising that people who don't like it should take against it with a vengeance. I don't want to get into an argument -- see declaration of interest below-- but you may be interested in a couple of corrections of fact.

You repeatedly decribe the author as a first-timer: in fact, her first book Michael and the Secret War was published in the 1980s, reasoably well received, but is now long out of print; and she is co-author of the 2005 graphic novel The Mostly True Story of Mattthew and Trim (unlikely to be seen in the US, as it deals with Australian history).

The business of the Dickens reference might have been a clue (along with the allusion to Leonard and Virginia Woolf and others) that the story is not actually set in France but, if anywhere, in a largely expatriate French ballet community in, probably, London: if you're hating a book, such apparent inconsistencies fuel the fire; if you love it, they become subtle challenges.

(Declaring an interest: I'm a friend of the author, read the book twice in manuscript, and am mentioned in the dedication.)

At 12:17 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Well that IS a factual error. It will be changed immediately on all formats. Thank you very much for bringing it to my attention. This is what I get for trusting Amazon.com too much. If you click on the name Cassandra Golds on the "Claire-de-Lune" page, you find that to be the only book she is credited with writing. I didn't see any mention of other novels on the book's bookflap and her Random House page made no mention either. From here on in I shan't trust any of them. Thank God for Wikipedia.

The book could indeed be set in England with expatriate characters, yes indeed. So why all the mice with French names? Are they expatriates as well? I didn't dislike the book particularly for this detail. Just found it a bit inconsistent with the story proper.

By the way, you are a most charming commentator. If someone were to review MY friend's book the way I've reviewed Ms. Golds' I should waste no time in making it quite clear how scummy they were. You are a true gentleman, sir. I salute you.

At 1:36 AM , Blogger MissQwan said...

I truly love this book. When I read it, I read it with a heart of a child..not a heart of someone who's seen the world through and through. It makes me cry. I'm so sorry Bonaventure got killed by that stinky cat. The plot is lovely. I love this book!!


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