Wednesday, February 27, 2008

An Opportunity for a Little Adventure: Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters by Lesley M. M. Blume

I love reading children's books that should have been around when I was a kid. You know the sort; you curl up with it on the ferry returning home from a book buying expedition and think, "Wow, I would have loved this when I was wee." There's a sense of hope and possibilities in even the shortest children's story that I find reassuring, even inspiring. Even better is coming back to an old story and finding it improved with age--did you know that the Ramona books have an underlying anti-public school theme?

But I digress.

Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters
, Lesley M. M. Blume's debut, is exactly the kind of novel I would have read to pieces as a kid, but enjoy even more as an adult. Our heroine, Cornelia Street Englehart (a name her mother's bohemian friends find charming and Cornelia herself thinks insufferable), long ago retreated into a world of books and words to shield her heart from her ravishing, beautiful pianist mother's unavailability. Words are her first line of defense against snooty classmates and her overbearing French housekeeper, who falls back after a barrage of multisyllables from Mademoiselle Dictionnaire, and the one way she distinguishes herself as more than the daughter of virtuoso Lucy Englehart. She expects that nothing extraordinary would ever happen to her beyond visiting the Biography Book Shop and buying cupcakes from Magnolia, and nothing does, until Virginia Somerset comes into her life.

The famous author, her attentive servant Patel and French bulldog Mister Kinyatta all become fast friends with Cornelia. She, herself, is charmed with Ms. Somerset's open manner and fantastic decorating skills. A palm-groved, lantern-lit Moroccan salon, delicate French drawing room, sturdy English study and lavish Indian bed chamber set the scene for Virginia Somerset's tales of her youth, adventuring around the world with her lively sisters in the early 1950s. The Somersets are wiley and resourceful, whether standing in for a runaway bride in a Moroccan wedding procession, taking painting lessons and modeling for Pablo Picasso, or spying on the ghosts of King Arthur's court. Within all of her tales is a respect for bravery and independence, barely acceptable virtues in a woman of their time.

Cornelia is an appealing heroine, quiet and bookish but with enough spark to howl along with her mother's obnoxious opera diva friend. Her flowering into an open, giving person is lovely to read. I found a scene where she and a group of new playmates act out scenes from Virginia Somerset's adventures especially touching, as it's exactly the sort of thing a girl her age and personality would do. Blume's descriptions of life in Greenwich Village especially appeal:

But Greenwich Village was different, like a world within a world. Its narrow streets wound around in a wonderful maze, and worn-down cobblestones covered many of them instead of plain old asphalt...Cornelia liked exploring alone. She knew every building, nook, and cranny in the area. She loved visiting the Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street. In the front window, the bakers arranged lines of dainty cupcakes covered with pale pink, baby blue, or buttery yellow frosting. Cornelia's mother called them "fairy cakes," and customers stood in long lines down the block just to buy one. When the line was too long, Cornelia sometimes went around the corner to a tiny cafe called Westville instead. She ordered French fires and a root beer and watched people outside rush past the window. She made up stories about the passersby that she never told to anyone else.

While Cornelia helps Virginia complete her magnum opus, Virginia encourages Cornelia to step out of her word fortress, and to begin to understand her mother. Blume delicately handles complex emotions and relationships, one of the reasons that the Audacious Escapades so appealed to me.

Cornelia blinked back a tear. "Bt my mother doesn't understand or speak that language," she said. "Except for last night, she hardly ever talks to me at all. And I already told you that she doesn't even care about words and stories like we do."

Virginia leaned towards the silver tray and poured herself a cup of tea.

"Did it ever occur to you that your mother speaks through music and not words? And that is a very complicated, nuanced language indeed. Every note on every sheet of music is a word on a page to her. If you want her to try to understand your language, you're going to have to start trying to understand hers as well...if you grow to understand both music and words, there will be no stopping you in this world."

Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters is a lovely combination of old-fashioned style and storytelling with modern sensibilities. If you're nostalgic for the literature of your youth, it is a fine new tale to escape into, and dream of having a globetrotting friend with stories to tell, a French bulldog snuffling at your feet and cupcake in hand.

Lesley M. M. Blume's website provides links to explore both Cornelia and the Somerset sisters' worlds, as well as interviews and accolades.
This video interview introduces both the title and the real Mr. Kinyatta, as well as several places featured in the book.


Carrie said...

THANK YOU for reminding me I need to reread the Ramona books... heh, I still have all of them. :)

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