My 2 cents:
Michelle Cooper's novel defies the odds. First, it's her debut novel. Second, it is a work of historical fiction (set in pre-WWII on a rocky, windswept island off the coast of Spain). Third, Cooper's book was even more riveting, and down-right heart-stopping the second time I read it.
Princess Sophia receives a journal from her brother, Toby, as a gift for her 16th birthday. Thus, the novel begins:
“This is the journal of Sophia Margaret Elizabeth Jane Clementine FitzOsborne, begun this twenty-third day of October 1936, on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday.”
Forget cell phones, drivers' licenses, getting to school on time, and preparing for the SAT's. Sophia, an orphan, introduces her readers to the people who matter most to her: her older cousin and best friend, Veronica, older brother and heir to the throne, Toby, and little sister Henrietta (umm, Henry, rather). Also, there's Simon Chester, who's the son of their angry housekeeper, and Sophia's main crush (is he also her royal half-cousin?), and Uncle John (King of Montmaray, who lives in his bedroom). Forget the royal family you see in People magazine. Sophia entertains readers with stories of stretching meals based on the catch of the day, ghosts in the “castle,” fears of falling through the rickety drawbridge to the “chasm” below, crazed chickens and a feisty, fearless Henry. Oh, and there are also German soldiers, both friendly and unfriendly, a secret tunnel, deaths and injuries, a royal funeral, and exciting plans for Sophia's upcoming debutante season. Princess Veronica deals with the island kingdom's finances, the villagers, and Henry's schooling, while also deftly writing a lengthy book of her own – A Brief History of Montmaray. Cooper cleverly so constructs a story within a story. Sophia writes about their day-to-day experiences on the island in her journal, while Veronica vigilantly creates a record of the island's past. (Conveniently, the island features a multi-story tower library for research).
Especially cool is Sophia's accounting of experiences we take so much for granted, they are hardly noticeable to us, such as this description of Sir Anthony taking off from the small island in his two-seater “aeroplane” (p. 264-5):
“. . . Anthony was already pulling down his goggles and fiddling with the controls, and Simon was kicking away the rocks propped in front of the wheels. The plane seemed to trundle down the Green, and we ran for cover, ducking our heads. As before, it seemed impossible that such an enormous, unwieldy machine could lift into the air, but there it went – a hop, another hop, and then it was gathering itself up and soaring off over the island. Within minutes it was impossibly distant, a silvery blur against a leaden sky, and I prayed harder than I ever had before that it would arrive safely.”
And this, Sophia's account of the first time she sees a train (p. 289):
“There are electric streetlights each time we drive through a town, and rows of very tall trees, and once a passenger train running on tracks alongside the road. The windows were lit up and there were hundreds of people sitting inside. It was quite overwhelming – until that moment, I'd only ever seen a dozen people at a time in one place.”
Such “right-there-in-the-moment” writing makes me sigh with awe; however, the real pull of the novel is Princess Sophie herself, and the revelations she makes while writing in her journal. (p.194-5):
“At this, I thought, Oh, this is what it must be like to be a grown-up. Which is not a particularly comforting thought – I would have given anything to return to innocent childhood at that moment … So I sat up instead and wrote all this, and now the horizon is a thin band of silver. Soon I will get up and hide my journal in its secret cranny ...”
Yet, for all the high drama and open-mouthed surprise moments in A Brief History of Montmaray, Cooper's novel is also laughing-out-loud-all-by-yourself funny in places.
Length: 294 pages
Worth Your Time? Most definitely. The real question here is how you'll be able to put the book down once you've started. And, yes, there is a sequel.