REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
My favorite books are those that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers — including readers of all ages. Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s middle grade thriller “Under the Egg” (Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group U.S.A., 256 pages, $16.99) is a book that can be enjoyed by middle grade readers (ages 8-12), young adults and adults.
Thirteen-year old Theodora Tenpenny lives with her grandfather Jack and her mother Angelika in a 200-year-old townhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Jack is a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is the sole support of the family. The house is paid for and they subsist on a backyard garden and a flock of chickens. Chickens in Greenwich Village! That was enough to make this son of a Michigan chicken farmer read on! (An insight: people who long to go back to the land never grew up on a farm).
When Jack Tenpenny dies one day of a burst embolism, he whispers a few enigmatic words to Theodora, about looking under the egg and something about a “treasure.”
Theodora’s once brilliant mom is, to put it politely, “unstable,” obsessing over a mathematics dissertation that everybody’s forgotten, as well as expensive teas sold to her by their French neighbor Madam Dumont, a women Theo calls a “tea pusher.” Angelika Tenpenny reminds me of the older Edie Bouvier Beale in the 1975 documentary film “Grey Gardens” by Albert and David Maysles.
Shortly after her beloved grandfather’s death, Theo spills a bottle of rubbing alcohol on her late grandfather’s painting, and discovers what seems to be an old Renaissance masterpiece underneath. This could be an “Antiques Roadshow” moment for Theo, who’s struggling to hang onto her family’s in-need-of-major repairs townhouse and support her unstable mother on her grandfather’s legacy of $463. All would be great except that Theo’s grandfather’s occupation might have enabled him to steal the painting from the museum.
At her favorite restaurant, where the owner, Mr. Katsanakis, often provides free meals, Theo meets Bodhi, a girl her own age who’s the daughter of celebrity actors Jake Ford and Jessica Blake. The two girls hit it off from the start and begin their investigation of the mysterious painting. In the process, she meets experts, including a very helpful librarian named Eddie, a Pakistani street vender of nuts who knows a lot about paint, a savvy woman Episcopalian priest and many more. Theo and Bodhi learn about the Monuments Men and their search for artwork stolen by the Nazis and discover a shocking secret about her beloved grandfather.
I knew about much of the subject matter from reading books like Lynn H. Nicholas’ “The Rape of Europa” and Noah Charney’s “Stealing the Mystic Lamb” (my review: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/101006-kinchen-columnsbookrev…) and I’ve read about Berga, a German concentration camp where American Jewish soldiers were selected out from the general population at a nearby P.O.W. camp and worked to death (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berga,_Thuringia). The story of Berga is a shameful part of American history with the government doing its best to make the Germans feel good as the U.S. recruited Nazi scientists under Operation Paperclip.
The author’s research is outstanding and contributes to making “Under the Egg” a worthy book for readers of all ages — as I noted at the beginning of this review. For those who want to see the monuments men in action, mark Tuesday, May 20, 2014 on your calendar. That’s the release date of the DVD and Blu-Ray of a movie, “The Monuments Men”, produced, directed by and starring George Clooney. Cast members include Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Bill Murray. Based on the novel “The Monuments Men” by Robert M. Edsel, the movie features a group of allied soldiers and French citizens who rescued art that had been robbed by the Nazis for destruction during WWII.
Laura Marx Fitzgerald drew on her study of art history at Harvard and Cambridge University to writer her middle grade debut novel “Under the Egg.” She lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn. Her website: http://www.lauramarxfitzgerald.com.
Publisher’s website: http://www.penguin.com