(Finally! Something to say and time to say it coincide!)
(especially after trying to get my daughter interested in it). So far, it's been a great choice for summer reading.
In some ways, the story draws on what are definitely cliches in literature for children: the main character is an orphan; she has to deal with relatives who are hateful and borderline abusive. Harry Potter, anyone? But there are other ways in which I've found the story to be delightfully fresh, including the characters, the plot situation, and the setting.
The main character, Maia, is a sympathetic character, although she's almost too nice to be real. (Come on, Maia - you can't say you never once wanted to smack one of the twin cousins who are so mean to you!) But the characters I am really enjoying are the governess, Miss Minton; the child actor who is on the verge of outgrowing his career, Clovis; and the heir of Westwood Manor who is not at all interested in his inheritance, Finn. Miss Minton is especially appealing to me. On the surface, she is a very severe, all-business governess. Behind closed doors, however, she is a true ally and friend to Maia. When the aunt Maia has come to live with insists that Maia study the same dull, remedial curriculum that her cousins do, Miss Minton cleverly arranges things so the aunt's ego AND Maia's desire to learn are both satisfied. Miss Minton is a no-nonsense type of person, but she's definitely not an ogre of a governess, and there have been heavy hints (heavy to an adult reader, anyway) that she had an interesting life of her own before she became a governess. How could I not love a character who was once dismissed from a job for reading too much?
Finn is another interesting character. He is the son of a British naturalist and an Indian woman (and he, like Maia, just happens to be an orphan) (parents apparently really get in the way in children's fiction, ha ha). A couple of private investigators are trying to track down Finn to take him back to England to assume his place as the heir of a large estate. Finn, however, has no interest in going to the place where his father spent a miserable childhood; he has plans of his own, to fix up his father's old boat and sail the river to find his mother's tribe. He's having to hide from the investigators, and despite the hefty reward they are offering, the entire town is helping Finn avoid them. The plot seems to center around a plan Finn, Maia, and Clovis have come up with to try to pass Clovis (who desperately wants to go back to England) as Finn so the investigators will think they've accomplished their mission and leave Finn in peace. I've reached the point in the story that is three days out from the date the plan has to be put in motion; however, since I'm only about halfway through the book, I'm pretty sure the plan doesn't go as planned. I did glance ahead (shame on me!) and I saw something about a house fire and about Finn thinking he has abandoned Maia to a terrible fate so he could get what he wants. But I then very firmly shut the book - I don't want to ruin the surprise, because it is such fun to watch it unfold.
Finally, the story is set in Brazil in the early twentieth century. I've never read anything set in Brazil, so it's fun to read the descriptions of the jungle and the animals and to pick up on the history of the relationships between the native peoples and the Europeans who came in to make their fortune by exploitation of the rubber industry. I always like to learn something while I'm being entertained.
I've reached the point that I think about the book even during the day while I'm doing laundry or washing dirty dishes. Soon enough, I suspect, I will sneak off somewhere to a comfy chair and stuff the whole thing down in one sitting.....