July 12, 2018
(+++) CULTURAL VENEERS
The Frame-Up. By Wendy McLeod MacKnight. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Midnight in the Piazza. By Tiffany Parks. Harper. $16.99.
In their attempts to break away from the usual formulaic adventures told in preteen novels, authors have found a variety of directions in which to turn. When they happen to look to artistic matters (a rare occurrence), their books become noteworthy even if the underlying plots are straightforward and nothing particularly special. Thus, the most interesting parts of Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s The Frame-Up are about art. The 12-year-old protagonist is named Sargent Singer, in honor of the painter John Singer Sargent. Most of what happens in the book is fairly formulaic: Sargent Singer visits his divorced father, from whom he is estranged, at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada, which the father runs. As the book progresses, father and son get past initial awkwardness and difficulties relating to their family situation to move toward a rapprochement. There is nothing unusual in this. There is also little out of the ordinary about the plot of disappearing art and art forgery: books such as Chasing Vermeer have dealt with similar topics before, and better. And the bad guys here turn out to be stereotypical villains. But for all the familiarity and ordinariness of much of the book, it has one element that makes it worthwhile: the notion that art is alive. This is not exactly new – it was integral to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for example – but MacKnight uses the conceit in some interesting ways. Sargent accidentally discovers that a 13-year-old girl in William Orpen’s 1915 painting, Mona Dunn, is alive, when she sticks out her tongue. That painting is real – reproductions of it and other art works relevant to the story are included in an insert in The Frame-Up. In the book, Sargent discovers that Mona and other painted people can move about within paintings and between them, visiting each other and exploring the various artists’ landscapes. Sargent and Mona share similar pre-adolescent loneliness despite their separation by a century and into two worlds, and they soon become friends, co-explorers of the outdoors, and joint solvers of the mystery of the nefarious bad guys. The asexual boy-girl “buddy” relationship is a mainstay of preteen novels, but this one has some genuinely clever elements and is nicely constructed by MacKnight. The book is also packed with information about art: concepts, specific works, techniques and critiques. For some readers, this will slow things down, and certainly The Frame-Up proceeds at what is basically a leisurely pace. But preteens who want speed in their plotting are not MacKnight’s target audience: this is a more-thoughtful book in which the ordinary broken-family elements, the standard defeat-the-usual-bad-guys strands, are less important (or at least no more important) than the discoveries of the wonders and surprises of the art world. Those may carry over for some readers into real life, even without the likelihood that they will be able to interact and solve mysteries with characters from paintings.
The mystery involves art of a different sort in a different location in Tiffany Parks’ Midnight in the Piazza, but here too the setting and the material related to the artistic elements of the story are more interesting than the human interactions and, for that matter, more so than the human characters themselves. Here the protagonist is 13-year-old Beatrice Archer, who has unwillingly moved to Italy: her father has taken a professorship job to lead the history department at the American Academy in Rome. Beatrice soon discovers that the Eternal City – where Parks herself lives as an expat – has charms of all sorts, not the least of them being the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) in the Piazza Mattei. Beatrice’s window overlooks the fountain (which, like the Orpen painting in MacKnight’s book, is real); and one night, she sees someone steal the bronze turtles that give the fountain its name and replace them with copies. Her father, the usual feckless-adult type who does not seem to be much of a historian or have much curiosity about Beatrice’s story, simply dismisses it and her – so she platonically befriends a local bilingual boy named Marco (Beatrice speaks no Italian) and works with him to find out what is going on. Beatrice is soon drawn into the legend of the fountain and the history of the Mattei family that commissioned it. In particular, she learns about Duchess Caterina, who found solace from her harsh life in her diary, which Beatrice discovers. Caterina Mattei really lived (from 1486 to 1547), and as a result, Beatrice’s search takes on an aura of plausibility (despite some irritatingly unlikely coincidences). Parks also includes art history in Midnight in the Piazza, and the numerous footnoted Italian phrases help add to readers’ sense of in some way being there with Beatrice and Marco as they look into the modern-day mystery. Parks is clearly enamored of Rome, its architecture and history, and her passages about the city make it come alive in ways that the rather dull central characters never do. As with MacKnight’s book, Parks’ novel is one that will be of most interest to preteens looking for something beyond the formulaic stories usually created for their age group – and, indeed, willing to look past the ordinary elements of Midnight in the Piazza and enjoy the artistic material that sets the book part from so many others.