The summary alone intrigued me: “Isabelle Bean follows a mouse’s squeak into a closet and falls into a parallel universe where the children believe she is the witch they have feared for years, finally come to devour them.” First, that name Isabelle Bean. By no means nutty, but just enough that it hints at the weird and wacky world too come. Then there’s the parallel universe. Immediately, I’m thinking about other examples in fiction such as when Lucy enters Narnia through the wardrobe in The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis or Coraline enters another twin house through a door in the book of the same title by Neil Gaiman. Last, there’s the witch. The description “finally come to devour them” makes me think of the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. As I’m pretty sure that a middle-school girl who falls through a closet isn’t that kind of witch, I’m eager to know exactly who this Isabelle Bean is.
As for the story itself, Falling In is like nothing I had expected for two reasons. First, there is the main character, whose response to a spelling list is to press her ear to her desk. That sounds a tad peculiar, doesn’t it? Immediately, I want to know more! Moreover, I’m guessing that Isabelle gets into trouble with teachers. Dowell doesn’t instantly allow Isabelle to escape her real world, which allows me as a reader to find out how much of an outcast she is. Of course, readers should be able to empathize with the main character, and so Isabelle is a likeable eccentric. When her teacher Mrs. Sharpe orders her to the principal’s office, Isabelle wonders: “Why always the same old thing? Couldn’t Mrs. Sharpe come up with something original? Why not shoot Isabelle out of a cannon, send her flying over the top of the playground’s monkey bars?” Naturally, this being a fantasy story, Isabelle never makes it to the principal’s office. Instead she hears that mouse squeak and it’s bye-bye school!
The second reason Falling In is like nothing I had expected is because of the twists and turns in the plot. Isabelle terrifies and then befriends a group of children who helpfully advise her to seek out the camps in the woods –and so naturally Isabelle heads in the opposite direction. Perhaps she is really a witch after all?”It didn’t help that Isabelle started pondering the notion that she might be a changeling, because she believed herself to have abnormal powers. Then Hen appears. (Another perfect name, don’t you think?) Isabelle convinces Hen that she knows a shortcut to the camps, which isn’t turn. And then later it turns out that Hen has a secret or two of her own. Nothing ever goes the way I expect in this story, which is why I read it in a couple of sittings.
I hope by now you understand why I say Falling In is full of whimsy. What about those diverse friendships? Well, there is Grete, a mysterious old woman the children meet in the woods who knows Isabel’s mom. How is that possible, when the two live in parallel universes? Then there is Elizabeth, a girl from the camps who like Hen has a secret or two of her own. There’s also eight-year-old Jacob who flubs some very important plans. And for the animal factor, there is a reclusive brown spider. To find out its purpose, you’ll need to read Falling In for yourself.
There is one thing that I’m not sure whether I liked. Now and then, Dowell interrupts the regular narrative to impose an author’s voice: “I’d like to stop here for a moment, if I could. I want you to think about how many times you’ve opened a door. What happened? You twisted the knob, pushed or pulled, walked inside or outside, or from one room to another.” Sometimes these interjections make me feel as if like Jill Murphy in The Worst Witch that Dowell is in the room telling me the story. Other times, her interjections seemed too rambling and cute.
Now before I end my review, I want to tell you about one last thing I liked about Falling In. About a year ago, the Looking Glass Wars trilogy by Frank Beddor influenced my ideas about imagination. Dowell also explores this theme. When Isabelle wonders if she is a changeling, Dowell interjects to say: “Please don’t tell me you go to one of those schools where they only teach things you can prove…. Do you hear me sighing? I want you to march into your principal’s office first thing in the morning and say, ‘I demand you educate my imagination!’“ Later, Isabelle discovers that Hen is familiar with changelings and makes the observation that the most interesting things in the world are currently out of fashion. And, much later, Grete explains to Isabelle that others are unable to find this parallel universe because they don’t have the ability to see things that aren’t there. Now I’m thinking back to a line in Peter Pan: Every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies, somewhere a fairy falls dead. Here, I must take a step back and admit that young adult novels are doing their part to keep alive our knowledge of fantastical creatures. However, they’re also full of angst and romance instead of appeals to my imagination, and so I still prefer a good juvenile fantasy.
Falling In by Frances O’Rourke Dowell fits this latter category. While imparting valuable lessons about friends and prejudice, it is also imaginative and playful. Dowell doesn’t know if she’ll write another fantasy; Falling In is not her typical fare. However, I really enjoyed it and so will be reading her realistic fiction. I’m also rooting for her to write more fantasies.
Falling In was a GREAT story. I was really "Falling In" to it. Now I'm gonna make my parents and my sister read it. I like to read and thought that this book was perfect for me, because it was interesting and fun. If somebody didn't like this book, they need to read it again!