Friday, October 24, 2008

Pieces of the Puzzle

4Q 3P; Audience: M/J

Frannie is devastated when her father dies. His house was a warm, comforting place, a place where she knew she'd always be understood. Her father saw the world through an artist's eyes, and he taught Frannie to see the art in everything. Her relationship with her mother isn't like that. Even her best friend doesn't get her the way her father did. That huge hole he's left behind - will she ever be able to fill it? It doesn't seem likely.

Her father left his house and its contents to her. It takes weeks before she's ready to face going back there, let alone choose which of his belongs to keep (as many as possible) and which to give away (not that, not that, definitely not that). It is in his studio ("It looks like he's just taken a break") that she makes her most significant find: a carved wooden box with Frances Anne carved on the top. Below her name is 1000. Inside the box are pieces of a handmade jigsaw puzzle. It must have been meant as a birthday gift for her. It is all the more precious because her father never planned ahead, and her birthday is weeks away. He'd been thinking about her.

Her father's death has sent Frannie into a significant depression. She pushes everyone away, including her best friend (who wants to listen to her talk about her new boyfriend when all Frannie can think about is how much she misses her father). All she wants to do is lie on the floor in her room and grieve. But the jigsaw puzzle calls to her. She takes it out and slowly begins to put it together.
Piece by piece, edge by edge, the picture slowly takes shape. It's a village. What village? Where is it? Frannie thinks she knows the answers, but she is in for more than one shock. The more she concentrates on the puzzle, the more real it seems to her. There are times she could swear she was actually inside the puzzle. Could that be? How could that possibly be?

Much to her dismay, Frannie doesn't get to spend all of her time locked in her room with her puzzle and her grief. Her mother has arranged a summer job for her. Something to keep her occupied. Something to keep her mind off death and dying. Something right up her alley: teaching arts and crafts at a summer camp. There is far more humor in this book than one might expect to find in a book about dealing with grief, and much of it comes from Frannie's experiences as a camp counselor. There are quirky campers, a dreamy co-counselor, and Frannie's unique take on how to make art with the under-ten crowd. Poison is a riveting subject, for instance. Wouldn't a collage of all the poisonous things in your home that look innocuous be eye-catching? Dishwashing detergent ("If a Poison Control Center"). Batteries ("May explode"). Toothpaste ("May be harmful if swallowed"). Mouthwash (ditto). Not surprisingly, Frannie's avant-garde art style raises a few eyebrows (parents) and gives rise to more than a few grins (the reader).

The dash of is-this-really-happening-or-is-she-a-little-crazy certainly will keep readers intrigued. Several well-placed pictures help underscore how important and omnipresent art is in Frannie's life and in her relationship with her father. And there's more depth here than may at first meet the eye. Using assembling a jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor for putting a life back together again after it falls apart works surprisingly well. Readers who enjoy fast-paced books may want to give this one a pass, but for those who like books that fold you in their arms and carry you gently away, it's a winner.

Quotes to give you a flavor of the book:

Do you know what it says on a tube of toothpaste? In small print? You have to read the small print because they never tell you anything scary in large print. Large print is what they want you to see. Here's what the large print says: FOR BEST RESULTS, SQUEEZE TUBE FROM THE BOTTOM AND FLATTEN AS YOU GO UP. But the important stuff is small. Tiny. If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away. You can die from toothpaste.

I've been going to Cobweb since kindergarten. Every week the school holds a meeting, its word for assembly, about world awareness. At the last one a doctor spoke about all the orphans in Africa who had lost their parents to AIDS. The purpose of these meetings is to raise more sensitive human beings, but all that sensitivity didn't stop Sukie Jameson from bragging about her breasts or kids from staring at me when I returned to school. I stared right back...Perhaps they expected a mark on my forehead, like an outline of a man with line through him, kind of like a traffic warning sign.

All the counselors look to be my age. Well, I look old for my age in my opinion, because of my awesome maturity and possible air of tragedy...One counselor, a guy with a buzz cut, is doing push-ups...I guess you need to be in good shape to handle a bunch of kids under the age of ten. "Hey, I'm Simon, who are you?" He jogs a circle around me..."I'm Frannie." I give him a Mona Lisa smile...Jenna [her best friend] and I practiced Mona Lisa smiles in front of the mirror. When someone bugged us at school, we would say, Give him (or her) the MLS*. With the MLS, it's not clear if you're smiling, being secretive, or, in the case of me with Simon right now, acting superior. "Frannie," he repeats. "Frannie-bo-banny." Forget the MLS. A total snub is in order. (pp. 121-123)

(* I confess that I found Frannie's use of initials instead of whole words frustrating at times. I couldn't ever remember what ENP was supposed to stand for, but it was used repeatedly to describe another counselor. Turns out, I discovered just now, that it's an "Extremely neat person". Okay.)

I won't quote more, but I hope it's clear from these few that Frannie's voice is droll and a little wry, and quite worth spending time with.


  1. I've read this one - it's so good & funny too. I love her dry humor. (:

  2. I do too. I was introduced to the Ephron family years and years ago when I read We Thought We Could Do Anything by Henry and Phoebe Ephron. A great sense of humor is clearly in the family genes, because both Delia and Nora (their kids) are also very witty writers. I think it takes something special to be able to write about grief with humor.


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