Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

**This review has spoilers** As a sixth grader I remember cooking all sorts of desserts. My best friend and I would make kringles or cakes and pies from scratch. I didn't realize she was my yellow brick road to cookdom until I started cooking on my own. My brick road crumbled once I went solo. That's why I get a kick out of authors who have protagonists who love to cook and are good at it like sixth grader Eleanor. She's so good that she starts selling her food at a local restaurant to save up for chef school. But cooking isn't just a passion for Eleanor, it also calms her inside, something she needs desperately as she watches her dad get carted off to jail. Her mom won't tell her what is going on and she turns to cooking to settle down. As the situation unfolds, she's spitting mad at her dad's actions. She turns to her friend, Frankie, whose problems are similar to hers and the two find words of wisdom from the homeless man, Tom.

This story has some inconsistencies in the characters and plot but for the most part has a nice message about forgiving others and learning to have empathy. Frankie has the same emotional arc as Eleanor in a subplot but both are dealing with different situations. Eleanor's family deals with addiction and Frankie deals with abandonment issues. Eleanor's mother doesn't talk to her when the author wants to advance the plot. This is supposed to add tension but it drags out the action and makes the plot forced. There was one part where I guessed what the dad had done so early it was a boring build-up to the big "ah-ha" moment. Unfortunately I've had two relatives steal money a grandparent left to them so it was a predictable plot element for me. I doubt students will catch it.

Eleanor's mom is presented as flaky and caring. The fluctuations of being a responsible and irresponsible parent made for a convincing dysfunctional family, but also a contradictory character.  The mom rushing off to give herself a deep conditioning treatment when she doesn't want to talk to Eleanor or keeping her up until midnight is irresponsible, but other times she makes an effort to talk to Eleanor and shows she cares. I didn't find her particularly bright with her superstitious mumbo-jumbo and I didn't think she was respectful to Eleanor (hiding her dad's letters) and to the father when he comes back from jail (she won't cut his hair even though she is a stylist). I thought the parents would get a divorce because of the mom's attitude but she is still going through her emotional arc of forgiveness. I didn't find her all that likable or consistent and the harshness of putting her husband in jail versus having an intervention made me think they were getting a divorce.

Dad is presented as caring and loving at the start, not irresponsible, but he steals money from his daughter. We learn how irresponsible and not too smart he is as the story progresses too. He isn't really presented as a gambler well enough to justify the harsh actions. I also had questions such as can a person be put in jail for spending their child's trust fund? If he's the guardian doesn't that mean he can get at the money? Isn't it legal since his signature is on the deposit box access slip? I wanted more explanation as to why the mom chose this course of action and legally how much he had to steal to be put in jail and how long he'd be in jail. He had just gotten a job and couldn't they have come up with a solution where he sets aside money for Eleanor? He seems reasonable. More importantly, if he has a gambling habit he needs intervention not jail-time. In this story the jail-time supposedly turns him around, but in the real world that isn't going to happen with someone who has a serious gambling problem. And giving the trailer to a homeless guy, Tom? I think this is supposed to show he's kind, but it didn't make sense to me in the plot. I struggled with this part of the plot being authentic.

Marisol didn't come alive for me and I didn't find Frankie's habit of chewing Tums endearing. Many people love this book, but it didn't strike a chord with me. While the themes of friendship and forgiveness amidst a family crisis are worthwhile, I found the execution, "meh." This book did remind me of Polly Horvath's books with characters who love to cook. I would recommend her novels to students who liked this book.  I also thought of the book, "Turtle in Paradise," that develops an interesting mother who is unable to take care of herself. This book's mom is not that extreme. I also thought of "Three Times Lucky," because the plot revolves around a restaurant where the characters come and go, but there is no similarity in plot or character development. This is one book you'll have to judge yourself. I know it is one that won't stay with me.

Reading Level 4.8
3 Smileys

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