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The King in the Window, by Adam Gopnik, Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children, 2005, $19.95.
LONGTIME readers of Adam Gopnik's marvelous essays as The New Yorker's Paris Correspondent (collected in the bestselling Paris to the Moon, 2000) know that he is a writer who could sell foie gras to vegans. Now, with the appearance of The King in the Window, a spectacularly fine children's novel, Gopnik may well have earned himself a place on the shelf beside another legendary New Yorker author, E. B. White. The King in the Window has all the markings of a genuine classic, a là Charlotte's Web; or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Indian in the Cupboard or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I got the same atavistic rush reading The King in the Window as I did from my first encounters with those other books, a long time ago in a library far far away. I'll confess to having felt burnt out by the cascade of YA fantasies over the last few years, all those ill-begotten progeny untimely rip't from Harry Potter's success (the editor of this magazine recently noted that twenty-five percent of the new books he'd received for review were YA novels). It's like trying to keep up with alt-rock bands: the Kills? the Killers? the Thrills? the Fillers? the Hives? the Heaves? Eragon? Aragorn? Estragon? Estrogen?
The King in the Window was something I scarcely hoped to encounter again, its author's well-noted facility notwithstanding: a fantasy with an original conceit, beautifully written, funny, warm, and moving, even (quelle horreur) mildly educational. Okay, it falls apart a bit at the end, but I've always felt that even Roald Dahl faltered a bit with that Great Glass Elevator. For any confirmed fantasy-lover who has sickened on stale literary beer composed of the dregs of dragons, trolls, elves, wizardlings, ersatz prophecies and spunky child protagonists, here is a glass of Veuve Cliquot to be savored, though I suspect most readers will down The King in the Window in one long gulp.
In a brief afterward, Gopnik notes that his book's appellation contôle is Paris; the novel was conceived there, and its author's love for the city suffuses the novel like a blush. The central character is Oliver Parker, an American boy whose father writes for a U.S. newspaper. Oliver has lived in Paris since he was three. On the evening of Epiphany—January 6, Twelfth Night; the Feast of the Kings and as important a holiday as Christmas to the French—Oliver, as usual, finds the prize in his piece of galette, the traditional Epiphany cake: a little gold key.
Then his parents did what they always did. They both stood up, and his mother very ceremoniously placed the [paper] crown on Oliver's head while his father saluted him. To anyone looking in from the window, it would have looked like a very solemn coronation, even though Oliver was eleven years old. "God, Dad," Oliver muttered—but he didn't say it very loudly.But later that night, Oliver learns that someone is looking in the window: "a boy in blue, with lilies on his clothing and long hair to his shoulders, gazing gravely at him."
The boy beckons Oliver, names him as King and calls him to do battle, then disappears. The next day, mysteriously alarming encounters follow, with Neige, the beautiful girl who lives upstairs from Oliver, and Madame Sonia, his favorite teacher; and so it is that on Saturday morning Oliver hightails it to the Louvre, "searching for what, he wasn't sure." There he finds, and steals, a crystal sword. In a nice break with tradition, two of the Louvre's guards witness this, and for the rest of the novel Oliver is pursued by representatives of the mundane world, as well as those from the supernatural one.
The crystal sword leads him to Versailles and the palace's famed Galerie des Glaces: the Hall of Mirrors; and it is here that Gopnik's luminous creation begins to burn through the contemporary Parisian landscape, itself an otherworldly place to American eyes. Within the glass panes of Versailles—within all the windows of our world—live the window wraiths, who are most emphatically not ghosts. Or, as explained by François, the boy whom Oliver first glimpsed on Epiphany,
"You see, ghosts come from another world and haunt you, but window wraiths are the world. We're the memory of the world. We're here for good. You're the ones who come and go like ghosts. You haunt us…Well, I thought, that explains a lot. I read the passage quoted above and had that Aha! experience you live for as a reader of the fantastic: the sense of entering a writer's invented world and realizing that this, indeed, is the way the true world must work, the world within or encompassing or flowing alongside our own. The very best fantasies make these revelatory visions of our world seem far more real than the everyday versions we suspect are not, cannot, be the real truth—think of the mannequins living inside department stores in John Collier's "Evening Primrose," the Prisoner's Aid Society of mice in Margery Sharp's Miss Bianca books; Roald Dahl's witches with their scratchy wigs, Sylvia Townsend Warner's mannered fairies, and Dodie Smith's sophisticated canine society in The Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Starlight Barking; T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose and John Crowley's Edgewood, and the Looking-Glass world that Lewis Carroll's Alice enters, and to which Gopnik gives more than a tip of the hat in his novel. These are all secret histories that invest the domestic and the mundane with a glow that has something within it of the sublime; not just the supernatural, but a faint intimation of the sacred, the way the world should be. You might think this is a heavy burden for a children's book to bear, but aren't the most beloved children's books also sacred texts of a sort?
And isn't Paris where all good Americans are supposed to go when they die? Oliver has the great good fortune of being alive to enjoy it.
But he quickly learns that the city, indeed the entire world, is imperiled by the Master of Mirrors, who enslaved the vain aristocrats of Versailles by capturing their souls. Only a relative few of the palace's inhabitants survived, by virtue of being busy with creating works of art or science or philosophy. They are known as Those Whose Backs Were Turned (to the mirrors), and their ranks include Molière, Racine, the composer Marc Antoine Charpentier; father-and-son spymasters Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol; Andre Le Notre, who designed Versailles' gardens; and the duc de Richelieu, the only aristocrat not to have been captured by the Magister Speculum.
"He was in charge of the king's entertainment, and so he never looked up at the mirrors," [Molière] whispered to Oliver, "he is a very great figure. He is the man who invented mayonnaise!"Those Whose Backs Were Turned join forces with Oliver, Neige, and an odorous army of clochards (street drunks—think Bowery winos with French accents and a Gallic sense of higher purpose) to find and defeat the Master of Mirrors before he can enslave the rest of the City of Light. Gopnik's plotting is intricate, deft, and, for the most part, surprising, so I won't reveal much more of it here. But above all, and for all the complexities of its narrative, The King in the Window is, as befitting a book about windows and mirrors, a novel of contrasts: between irony and rhetoric, wit and wisdom; between the American resignation to getting a job done, and the French panache for doing so with style. It is also—please forgive me—surprisingly reflective and, yes, wise for a contemporary American children's fantasy. Philip Pullman raised the bar for this kind of writing with His Dark Materials, and while there have been a number of fine novels that have appeared since then, this is the first one that I immediately sat down and began to reread.
This is because, among other things, The King in the Window is very, very funny. Gopnik's famously aphoristic style at first seems close to merely arch, when channeled through the mouths of the window wraiths Molière and Racine.
But then we meet Mrs. Pearson, one of the most instantly memorable characters in children's literature. Not since the Wart's Merlyn, or since Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler set Claudia and her brother Jamie sorting through her mixed-up files has there been such a formidable ally to a Young Person in Distress.
Mrs. Pearson! Lucy Pearson! …She was, well, about a hundred years old, Oliver knew, and she came originally from England. She was one of three scandalous sisters, and then she had gone to live with some very weird-looking French guy with a mustache. She wrote books, always about the Grand Siècle. Whenever a new one came out, his father would go to interview her, and she would say mean things about people.A sort of cross between Lady Antonia Fraser and Nancy Mitford, with a bit of Lady Bracknell thrown in, Mrs. Pearson is not merely mean. She is also one of the Witty, who in Gopnik's world—called The Way—rank with the Wise and the Watchful in terms of importance. Mrs. Pearson throws off witticisms the way a prism refracts color.
When intelligent people are challenged by something evil, they often try to convince each other that it is merely squalid.The loveliest setpiece in The King in the Window is the dinner Oliver shares with Mrs. Pearson at Le Grand Vefour, the (real) historic, three-Michelin-star restaurant where she orders chicken breast with truffles ("the only healthy meal one can eat at a place like this") and two bottles of Billecart Rosé. Gopnik's novel is worth reading for this chapter alone, which, among its many delights, seems to contain an homage to one of Merlyn's loveliest speeches in The Sword in the Stone. Like John Crowley's Little, Big, The King in the Window references numerous children's books, especially Lewis Carroll's work, without being derivative; in a later chapter Mrs. Pearson gives a recitation of the various types of lies, organized by color, that should be required reading for anyone considering a career in politics.
The King in the Window is children's literature of the highest order, which means literature of the highest order. Its secret history includes instructions for finding the hidden, crowd-free entrance to the Louvre; a thumbnail history of glassmaking, and Mrs. Pearson's means of preserving the bubbles in a bottle of champagne (it involves a white silver spoon). Such things may seem to be impossibly precious, adult knowledge to impart to young readers, and in many ways The King in the Window does seem like a highly polished stepping stone for American dream-children of a sensual, Francophile bent, the missing link between the Madeline books and Zazie Dans Le Métro, and A Sport and a Pastime and Before Sunset. I personally think Mrs. Pearson's knowledge has more in common with Merlyn's than with anything a kid could learn from Hogwarts.
My only quibble with this book is the hyperactive plot-twist that begins to build up halfway through; it's clever, but it feels noisy and unnecessarily aggressive, and—there is no polite way to say this—excessively American, like replacing your vintage Peugeot with an SUV, or spiking that Billecart Rosé with Mountain Dew. The King in the Window is published by Hyperion Books for Children, a division of Miramax, and one can sense the cold breath of the Master of Mirrors at work here, whispering that perhaps a few more computer gags and special effects would make the project more movie-ready. Once upon a time we fell in love with novels and, usually, were disappointed when we saw their filmed version. Now the disappointing bits are too often written right into the book, an unfortunate collusion between author and marketplace that, in this instance, leaches a bit of the sweetness from a lovely book.
But not much of it. Despite what disgruntled authors may think, overpraising rather than its reverse is the occupational hazard of reviewers. It may be that my palate has been spoiled by imbibing too much literary plonk, but The King in the Window seems like the real thing to me, a book both wise and witty that, like the fine wines the redoubtable Mrs. Pearson savors, will withstand the test of time.
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