When we meet thirteen-year-old Theo (Theodora Tenpenny), she is grieving for the loss of her grandfather, and puzzling over his cryptic last words. “Look under the egg… There’s… a letter. And a treasure.” A treasure is exactly what Theo needs to support herself and her eccentric mother, since their last few dollars are quickly dwindling. When she finds a hidden painting in her grandfather Jack’s studio, she begins an investigation that leads her on an art history adventure through Manhattan’s museums, libraries, auction houses, churches, and even hospitals. This adventure is the main plot of a wonderful debut book by Laura Marx Fitzgerald called Under the Egg.
This is one of those rare books in which the reader doesn’t have to choose between plot, character, and heart; it has it all. Theo and her new friend Bodhi are smart and resourceful. They captured my curiosity and imagination as they followed lead after lead around the city, the mysterious painting bumping along behind them in a rolling suitcase. In Theo’s story, paintings are not simply oil and canvas, precious and untouchable. They are artifacts of an artist’s life, and they can have a life – and journey – all their own.
Theo’s character is lovingly written and realistically complex. There is much about her that is old-fashioned: her handmade clothes, her discomfort with technology, her cans of preserved food, and her handiness with tools. Yet these traits are the product of her self-reliance, not nostalgia for another time; Theo seems completely at home in modern Manhattan. The twists and turns of this mystery would not be possible without the serendipity and the chance encounters that happen so frequently there.
When Theo sets out to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s painting, she sees an opportunity to support herself and her mother, to keep their life going. Solving the mystery also gives her a way of keeping her grandfather with her just a little longer. And this is the gift that the mystery brings to her. It gives Theo her grandfather back for a while, and lets her know him in a more real way than she did, even in life. Solving the mystery also shows Theo that, though she thought had next to nothing, she actually has everything that she needs. She will be okay.
Under the Egg isn’t just a story about a girl who solves an art mystery. The love between Theo and her grandfather is at the very core of this book. These two characters understand each other, the way soul mates do. And, in solving her grandfather’s mystery, Theo finds that her world has grown, magically and without her realizing it, into something that she can hardly recognize–a world that is full of possibility.
What a pleasure to read a beautiful book. Even greater pleasure to read a beautiful book by a friend! Congratulations to Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Back when our kids were in music class together, I didn’t know you had Theo in your brain!
Shannon blogs about her bookish life at www.shannonrigney.com