August 27, 2009


The Treasure Map of Boys. By E. Lockhart. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Matisse on the Loose. By Georgia Bragg. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Ruby Oliver, slut by reputation, misunderstood innocent who has kissed only six boys in 16 years and never done anything but kiss them, or not much else, is back again in The Treasure Map of Boys, as endearingly neurotic as in The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book. Ruby is quite a character, self-aware enough to understand the interpersonal mistakes she makes and even why she makes them (well, some of them), and perceptive enough to write entertainingly about her errors, but unable to keep from messing things up. E. Lockhart’s books, for ages 12 and up, make the perils of dating – and nondating, also known as being in the state of Noboyfriend – a lot more interesting and pleasurable than they are in real life. Ruby’s exaggerated problems with friends, ex-friends, possible future friends, possible future ex-friends, and her therapist. add up to far more fun than similar situations ever would in the real world. And that’s just the point of Lockhart’s book: it can give readers a little perspective, as in, “Thank goodness my life isn’t as messed up as that! Consider, for example, Dr. Z, the aforementioned therapist, whom Ruby has been seeing because of her panic attacks. At one point in The Treasure Map of Boys, Ruby, working in a store called Granola Brothers, has to fit sandals on a man with “the strangest, hairiest, smelliest feet I’d ever seen.” Nearly gagging, she manages to get him a pair that works; he then asks if he can keep wearing them until his girlfriend comes in; Ruby says that’s fine; and when the girlfriend shows up, she turns out to be – Dr. Z. Ruby nearly has a panic attack right then. “It was so weird to see her out in the real world, holding a mesh bag full of winter squash and something wrapped in brown paper that was probably fish. …[N]ow I knew what she was having for dinner, and that she was going to cook, and that she must really like winter squash because there were several big gourdlike items in that bag of hers Who on earth likes winter squash that much?” Ruby clearly has something of the obsessive-compulsive about her, on top of everything else. But there’s so much everything else, and it’s all handled so entertainingly, that readers will feel simultaneously sorry for Ruby and charmed by her. She writes the narratives – and provides her own footnotes. She self-analyzes: “Over the next two days, my life was like a movie entitled Return of the Roly-poly Slut. She gets a cheer-up picture of a frog from her ex-boyfriend and asks herself, “Was it an innocuous frog? …Or was it a Frog Laden with Meaning?” She then thinks up five possible meanings, none of them satisfactory, before concluding, “I knew I should throw it in the trash and never think about it again, but I couldn’t.” Ruby is clearly her own worst enemy – although she has quite a few others, or thinks she does – but even when she feels sorry for herself, she does so in such an amusingly presented way that the heartache, despite being as real as what any high-school junior ever feels, is mitigated by her presentation of it. Ruby’s incessant list-making has gotten her in trouble many times, and her adventures in miscommunication do so again and again in The Treasure Map of Boys, but Ruby is clearly a survivor, who will make it through high school – and life – bruised and battered but better for it. Which, indeed, is how she eventually makes it through this book.

     The problems are simpler, or at least more straightforward, in Matisse on the Loose, because Georgia Bragg’s book is intended for preteens, on the cusp of all those pesky hormones but not yet immersed in them. This is a book about mischief gone awry, and although it tries too hard to be a carefree romp, it is an entertaining bit of fluff that merits a (+++) rating. Matisse is the 11-year-old son of strange parents: “My dad is just one big advertisement for someone whose brains are all gone,” because he has invented a barbecue that roasts a whole pig and insists on wheeling it all over town to whatever event wants it. Matisse’s parents have a thing for art: his older sister is named Frida and his baby brother is Man Ray. This dovetails nicely with his mother’s job as head of security at the local art museum. But before the main plot gets started, Bragg tosses in some slapstick in the form of Frida’s obsession with the color purple and the escape of Dad’s barbecue into the middle of a five-year-old’s birthday party. This is the first example of the book trying too hard, but not the last. The primary story turns on the fact that Matisse really does have a talent for art – for copying it, that is. He is especially good at copying paintings by his namesake, Henri Matisse, one of which, “Portrait of Pierre Matisse,” features the painter’s son – a boy who looks a bit like Matisse, the book’s hero. So young Matisse copies the painting repeatedly, getting better and better at it. And then he finds himself alone with the real painting, with the security protections shut off. And on a whim, or in the grip of what Edgar Allan Poe called “the imp of the perverse,” he takes the real Matisse off the wall, frame and all, takes it out of the frame, and replaces it with his own copy. And no one notices. And when he tries to switch the paintings back, the alarm goes off and he’s stuck with the real one, rolled up – which ends up at his house. So Matisse tries to confess, but no one believes him. His mother goes off on a story about the time she took a friend’s Girl Scout pin. The police chief shows up at the museum and tries to catch Matisse, but it’s only to get some pointers on painting – Matisse actually says “you can book me, or send me to the torture chamber, whatever you want,” but of course the chief has no idea what he is talking about. Matisse is not entirely dumb – he realizes that his mother could easily be blamed for the theft of the painting, and he tells the chief that she had nothing to do with it. But again, the policeman thinks this is all part of a kids’ game of cops-and-robbers. It takes a meeting with the real Pierre Matisse – a deus ex machina if there ever was one – to straighten things out. Pierre Matisse actually died in 1989, but Bragg explains in an Author’s Note that she needed him in the present-day novel to interact with modern museum security. This is just one way in which Matisse on the Loose is a trifle more contrived than perhaps it had to be. It has its amusing moments, to be sure, but everything in it feels a bit too convenient and manipulated – almost like the novelistic version of a paint-by-numbers picture.

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