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Good concept. But...
on June 10, 2012
Cornelia is the daughter of a famous pianist, Lucy. And, unfortunately for Cornelia, that's all anyone ever seems to care about. When she's invited over for a new play-date with a possible-new-friend, it's typically because the parent wants to find out what Lucy is like, or somehow befriend Lucy via Cornelia. Add to this the fact that Lucy is always traveling and never takes Cornelia with her, and that when Lucy is home she's often busy with her music, Cornelia decided to seek refuge in long, complicated, and rarely used words. They are her barrier -- if someone starts asking her too many questions about Lucy, Cornelia delves into a profusion of words that no one else can understand and it's not long before the conversation wanes.
So, when a new and fascinating neighbor (Virginia) moves in, Cornelia is thrilled to discover that Virginia is not only a lover of words, too, but a writer. And best of all, Virginia seems interested in Cornelia, and Cornelia alone - not her mother. So, Cornelia visits Virginia often, each time learning about some new and amazing adventure in a different country that Virginia and her three sisters had experienced when they were in their early twenties. Cornelia is fascinated by the stories, and little by little we wonder what effect they will have on her own life and relationships.
I think the book is well written. The prose is good and flows well, and I think Blume does have a nice way with words. But, sadly, there were several things about the book that just didn't sit right.
For one, I'm not really sure who this book would appeal to. I like the idea of kids enjoying tales about older girls traveling the world - and think it is possible. But there seemed little in these travels that would appeal to young readers. Even I found them a wee bit boring from time to time. And, there really wasn't very much with Cornelia herself. There was at the beginning and the end, but everything in between was very focused on Virginia, and I wonder if that would also lose some young readers' interest.
But, what really bothered me was the lack of responsibility and thoughtfulness in the book. For Cornelia's part, what bothered me the most was her disdain, and often downright rudeness, to her (in essence) nanny of several years. Could the nanny be a bit nosy or sometimes push in on Cornelia's privacy? Yes. But she was also one of the only people in Cornelia's life that tried to show interest in Cornelia's life, and Cornelia treated her with annoyance and contempt. This wasn't ever really addressed, either, and it really made me not pull for Cornelia as much as I would have liked to.
Then, we have the stories of Virginia and her sisters. Interestingly enough, I liked the older Virginia. She, her hilarious dog, and her incredibly sweet assistant, were all lovely characters, very vivid, and I enjoyed reading about them. But travel back in time 50 or so years and Virginia and her sisters become a little less vivid, and they proceed through their travels with an utter lack of respect for any of the cultures or people they visit. So many times I cringed over their antics, that were presented in a supposedly "good" way... I got the sense that the whole point of their travels was to experience the "real life" of India, Morocco, England and the like. But these four girls, traveling on the expense of their father's wealth, have such disdain for most people of wealth or position (be it a maharaja in India or a queen of England). Hypocritical perhaps? But even more concerning was that the girls would often judge the culture and the people in it before they ever took the chance to understand its ways.
Examples (there will be spoilers in this section)
<spoiler>Paris: after one of their dogs escapes into he catacombs, the four girls rush in after him. And when the lady at the entrance tries to collect payment, all the girls do is fling some random amount of money at her. Okay, I could handle this since they were trying to catch their dog and didn't have time to spare. But when the lady tries to collect the money on the girls' way out (once they have their dog) it's made out that the lady is at fault - called "a witchy old thing" by Virginia herself.
England: When one of the sisters decides to enter her dog in the Crufts Champion dog show (indeed, the queen's dog is entered in the competition) the other sister decides to, in essence, rig the show, causing all dogs - except her sister's - to get disqualified. Is there any sign of remorse that she ruined something that several people have spent years and lots of money preparing for? No.
Also in England the girls are allowed to stay in a very fine establishment because the owners know the girls' father. It's basically a men's club, but, provided the girls stay out of the men's dinning area, etc., then the owner will let it pass. Do you think the girls could possibly accept this kind offer without intrusion? Nope. They end up meddling again because they think it's a stupid rule (forget the fact that it's not their club) and - after some dreadful antics - end up getting kicked out of the club, and getting their father kicked out as well. But, as Virginia said, "We figured he was better off without it." Again, tossing their own views onto someone else without asking first.
India: In India the maharaja and his other wealthy friends are portrayed in such a dreadful way. But, what concerned me the most was the sisters split-second decision about the caste system and untouchables. I'm not saying they should have agreed or disagreed with it, but they didn't pause for any explanation before basically, once again, throwing their views on the maharaja just because they could. And they did it, not to better the world or try and help, but simply because it gave them delight to do it. Now, in regard to their actions and reactions about the little boy I thought that was fine -- good in fact. But regarding what they did to the maharaja... can't really condone that.
India also includes another line that pretty much says it all. When one of the sisters realizes there a place called a Thieves Market, she says, "Now, that sounds exciting to me. I've always wanted to learn how to steal something. Let's go learn from the professionals." Was it addressed that stealing wasn't a good thing? No.
I'm not saying I agree with all the views of the cultures. And in some cases I very much disagree with them. But I felt the judgments were passed far to quickly. And for girls who wanted to experience different cultures, all they seemed to do was try and change the cultures to fit their views without understanding them first. And just as bad, the ways in which they tried to change things - more often than not - was not to make things better, or to help people see another side of things, but either in underhanded ways that wouldn't really help anyone, or simply for their own enjoyment.
This all sounds really harsh, but it bothered me a lot. Which is sad because I think Blume has lots of writing ability. But the lack or morals or ethics or kindness peppered throughout the book overpowered everything else.
I did enjoy the last few chapters, and they kept me captivated to push through to the end. I was even tearing up and rather touched. Which, even though the end was fairly predictable in part, it was a nice ending -- though very quick and a bit too rushed given all the issues that had built up over the book (and Cornelia's life prior to it).
I really wanted to like this book more than I did... I wish I could have.