Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

I have a Talent for burning food into unrecognizable rock-like chunks that Ker-plunk when tossed into the garbage can. The people of Poughkeepsie either have a Talent or they don't. The worst thing for a person in Pookie - I mean Poughkeepsie - is to have no Talent. Those that don't tend to be "Middlings" or middle children. (That explains my Talent woes). Poor Middling Marigold is one of those with no Talents and she's desperately trying to find it. When we first meet her in the story, she is tooling down her list of possible talents and scatching out, pinata making. Her attempt to make a goldfish pinata ends disastrously when the head breaks off and rolls across the kitchen floor. The domino effect of her breaking it is quite funny with an ironic afterwards of her ruefully looking at the severed head, "Your pinata skills need work, its gaping fish mouth seemed to tell her." Interesting characters and great writing make this a fun read.

Alternating voices tell this tale; however, the main voice is that of Cady, an orphan who has a Talent for baking mouth-drooling cakes. Cady wants to find a permanent home, but it never works out. She is sent back to the orphanage run by the wonderful Jennifer Mallory who adores Cady like a daughter. Jennifer is quite successful using her Talent to find orphans' homes, except it doesn't work with Cady. Marigold's younger brother, Will, has a Talent for disappearing and the chapters he narrates are filled with the imagination and adventure in contrast to the 10-11 year old Cady and Marigold. Will pretends he is a storybook knight whose motto is: "Giants. Monsters. Cake." And whether he's crawling through air ducts or riding a dumb waiter in the walls that no one else knows about, he bubbles and bounces through each day with zest. It is fun as an adult reader to be reminded of the joys of childhood. (Not that I climbed in air ducts! I explored the street sewers like a rat.)

Zane, older brother to Marigold and Will, has a talent for spitting. This gob-spitting maestro can project a glop of mucus with such precision that he uses this Talent for many things such as annoying Marigold. Lisa Graff creates authentic relationships between siblings who bicker and stick up for each other. "I'm going to tell Mom and Dad you spit at me," she [Marigold] retorted. "But she knew it was useless, like a poodle puppy yipping at a full-grown rottweiler." When Zane accidentally shoots down or I should say spits down the mysterious grey-suit-man's hot air balloon causing damage to their apartment, he sets into motion one of the many subplots that ties characters pasts with the present creating one complex muddled knot.

The adult voices of the Owner, Toby, Mrs. Asher, Mrs V, and Miss Mallory were not as engaging for me as the three children. I liked the different voices, although it was confusing at times and I did have to go back and reread some sections because I missed important details. I found that the multiple-voices made what would have been a somewhat predictable plot, unpredictable. Graff drops clues but doesn't recap everything so the reader has to put it all together for the most part. It was quite fun and reminded me of a mystery where clues are left like a trail of crumbs. The plot doesn't answer all the questions and the ending seemed a bit rushed but overall it is a highly entertaining story.

You might want to stop here. I am going to add some spoilers. I don't know how to talk about the author's messages. Sorry. Read this after you've read the book. Or if you are like me and have a Talent for forgetting everything or if you read the last page of a novel, then please read on.  

Mason, Delores, and Zane have problems with feeling worthless and they steal as a way to find self-worth. It is implied that Mason's family thinks he is good-for-nothing. We don't know when or why he steals others Talents. Delores steals a bone artifact as a young adult feeling it gives her worth because she found it on a dig as the only person with no Talent. Her insecurity is reflected in Zane who feels worthless by the Principal at his school. Delores and Zane change emotionally from beginning to end as they learn to like themselves, but Mason stays a one-dimensional villain.

At first I thought the Talents were rigid. You either had one or you didn't, but they are actually fluid. You can lose them and gain them in random or purposeful ways such as Mason stealing them and Cady losing hers. As such they are more true to real-life talents that come and go. For instance, I once had a talent for soccer, but I can't play now because of arthritis. Talents come and go and are nurtured in different ways and at different times in a person's life. As one character says, "A Talent is only rewarding if you wield it well." The idea at the end of the book where the group doesn't use any Talents and creates peanut butter that tastes almost as magical as the original recipe is a statement on teamwork and effort to be good at something without focusing on natural talent. Too bad Mason didn't stick around to learn that with his relatives. Multiple in-depth messages are thrown forth in this novel that make it good for book clubs.

Fate is another big theme. The man in the grey suit is the Fate-maker, but unlike the Greeks who felt Fate was predetermined, Fate-man believes that it is how one reacts to situations, "It's the way we deal with what Fate hands us that defines who we are." He isn't the only one who says this or believes it. Fate is described the same way by Cady and Marigold as they go through their emotional arc. At the end, when Cady slips the jar in her pocket it is clear that she is making a choice as to what to do with Fate. Fate isn't about being a victim. Fate is about choosing your destiny.

The writing has a heavy dose of repetition that helps highlight key points and certain words, such as Mr. Fate-man had "a grin that suggested he knew more about the world than he was letting on" and when the same phrase is used by Cady at the end it is clear that she understands that happiness is being with those you love and love you back and choosing your destiny. Or words such as "Adoption Day" that celebrates a child finding a family which reflects Cady's deepest desire or the repeated "Wha-pop!" of the door at the Emporium and the "click-click clack" of the pet ferret that add texture and emotion to different episodes. The cake recipes sprinkled throughout the chapters connects cooking in a nonfictiony way with Cady's story. Even the mystery book all the characters are reading, "Face Value," is a comment on the superficiality of Talents. The real depth of a person comes from what is inside and how they choose to determine his or her Fate.

O' Talented readers, pick this winner up and enjoy.

4 Smileys

No comments:

Post a Comment