Middle grade novels are often quite hit or miss with me. Either they’re charming, clever and beautifully insightful or they’re painstakingly obvious and full of jokes that aren’t much fun past a certain maturity level. Both have their place, of course, but they won’t all be hits with adult readers. Under the Egg? It’s a hit. A big hit.
As I often do, I went into Under the Egg totally blind. I had no idea what it was about, but it turned out to be a delightful art history mystery with ties to the second World War. Um, hello, that is some Christina-bait right there. Fitzgerald’s subject matter is both fascinating and educational. She combines a fabulous premise with compelling characters, all unique and flawed, and with a setting in New York City, almost a character itself.
Theodora Tenpenny’s family comes close to living up to the family name. They’ve only got a couple hundred dollars left, and most of that is owed to the woman next door who runs a tea shop. The Tenpennys got by okay until Theo’s grandfather died, but now it’s up to her to take care of her mother and keep the house just this side of foreclosure. At only thirteen, Theo manages everything. She grows all of their food, cans it, and takes care of their chickens. She also scavenges the streets of New York for anything useful, like a pair of tennis shoes in just her size. She repurposes scraps of old clothing into outfits for herself. Though they live in a large house in a nice area, the Tenpennys are desperately poor.
Theo is, as one might expect, pretty cynical, but she also never stops trying. Her mother is no help, likely a mathematical genius so far as I can tell but with no practical application to running the household finances. The mother spends most of her time shut in her room working on mathematical theorems and drinking expensive teas. I would have liked to know more about what was going on with the mother, but she was definitely interesting.
When her grandfather died, he told her to look “under the egg” for treasure. Eventually, by accident, she finds another painting beneath her grandfather’s painting of an egg. She begins investigating and discovers the painting just might be worth millions. What ensues is an art history mystery that has roots in WWII, and it’s just so wonderful. It’s kind of like Iain Pears for younger readers.
Along the way, Theo learns a lot about people. She makes a new friend in Bodhi, the daughter of two Hollywood A-listers. Bodhi’s incredibly bright and always looking for a new project. They’ve both been isolated for different reasons and come together in a first tentative friendship. I also really love their association with Eddie, the local librarian, who is totally opposite of all librarian stereotypes.
The Final Verdict:
Under the Egg is perfect for history or art nerds of any age. It’s fast-paced, but deep and full of great information.