105 Ways to Give a Book

The Willoughbys

The WilloughbysIn college I saw a play that had a very surreal bent: Christopher Durang’s ’Dentity Crisis. It was extremely funny, but also left me feeling a bit weird with its absurd humor. The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry, gave me the same feeling. Others have loved it for its satire of the old-fashioned book, but it just didn’t do it for me. And that surprises me, because in theory this sort of humor — the book is compared to Lemony Snicket’s titles — is right up my alley. What can I say?

The four Willoughby children realize that they should have been orphans, especially given that their parents don’t like them very much. About the same time, the parents realize that they want to get rid of the children themselves. It’s possible both things will be accomplished as the parents set off on a series of dangerous adventures, hiring a nanny to watch the children. Along the way, an abandoned baby, a grieving millionaire, a lederhosen-wearing boy, and a meticulous woman all feature in the strange story. Here’s a selection from early in the book that gives a sense of the tone.
“Oh, someone has left a beastly baby on our front steps,” Tim told her.

“My goodness, we don’t want a baby!” their mother said, coming forward to take a look. “I don’t like the feel of this at all.”

“I’d like to keep it,” Jane said in a small voice. “I think it’s cute.”

“No it’s not cute,” Barnaby A said, looking down at it.

“Not cute at all,” Barnaby B agreed.

“It has curls,” Jane pointed out.

Their mother peered at the baby and then reached toward the basket of beige knitting that she kept on a hall table. She removed a small pair of gold-plated scissors and snipped them open and closed several times, thoughtfully. Then she leaned over the basket and used the scissors.

“Now it doesn’t have curls,” she pointed out, and put the scissors away.

Jane stared at the baby. Suddenly it stopped crying and stared back at her with wide eyes. “Oh dear. It isn’t cute without curls,” Jane said. “I guess I don’t want it anymore.”

“Take it somplace else, children,” their mother said, turning back toward the kitchen. “Dispose of it. I’m busy with a meat loaf.”
In June I’ll join the conversation about this title at the DC Kid Lit Book Club. I’m curious to hear others reactions to the book, and maybe glean why I didn’t get the joke. I mean, I understood the satire, but it didn’t leave me laughing. And you know I love to laugh.

EDITED TO ADD: Kelly Fineman has a very thorough review of The Willoughbys today. She enjoyed it, so let's see what she had to say.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely. I liked the book okay, but I didn't love it, like so many reviewers whose comments I've read. I did enjoy the way Lowry mocked the conventions of children's lit, and I found it humorous in a wry sort of way, but not laugh-out-loud funny. I found it difficult to put into words, that quality that made me like-it-but-not-love-it.

Anonymous said...

I really did like it. But I must now go back and edit my post to add the one thing that I didn't like at all - the heavy-handed "Baby Ruth" comments throughout, which really didn't do it for me. Although it did remind me of an old comedy bit where a kid sits on Santa's lap and Santa keeps intoning "only four years old" (or was it three?) It worked too hard to be funny, and failed miserably, in my opinion. But I did love Tim naming her Ruth because they were the "ruthless Willoughbys".

Susan Kusel said...

Thanks for the shout-out for the bookclub, MR. I'm glad you're coming to that meeting.... we'll be able to hear what you think in person.

I've heard so many reactions to this book. I just got a copy of the Willoughbys today, so I have no idea what I think about it yet.

Unknown said...

My theory is that this book is an elaborate joke on the book-reading public by Lois Lowery. "What? No one is reading my books anymore? I'll show them, I'll write a book like Snicket! Let's see how they like THAT!"

Then again, I only listened to the Lemony Snicket books because I loved the way Tim Curry read them.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I think I'll take a pass on this one. Anything like Snicket is not on my list.

Susan Kusel said...

Now that I've read the book... I see that I'm in the same camp as you are, MR. The Wiloughbys just didn't do it for me... it was trying too hard. Kristi- you make excellent points, that's exactly what I though too.

It'll be interesting to have a bookclub discussion about this one... there's been such a divergence of opinions about it.