It’s no surprise that these two middle-grade novels by an art historian involve art: missing masterpieces, questions of ownership, and just plain how to look at a painting. I read these with my computer nearby, so I could look up the paintings referenced — and yes, they’re all real artworks. (In her author’s note to The Gallery, Fitzgerald mentions the fun she had “‘shopping'” the world’s greatest museums, building my own collection of paintings, and then arranging them to tell [the] story.” So, new parlour game: what 10 works of art tell your story? Penalties for using Munch’s The Scream or that painting of dogs playing poker. © Lizzie Ross 2018.)
Under the Egg may start with a death, but it’s a sprightly tale. Theodora Tenpenny (great name, by the way) and her mother are barely scraping by, living on fresh and canned vegetables from their back garden. Theo wears found (and then adapted) clothing: she turns a bag of discarded cashmere sweaters into felted wool components for shirts, leggings, even patches, and for much of the action she dons an old negligee as a strappy summery dress. Her recently deceased grandfather has left her a mystery — something is hidden “under the egg” — and solving this mystery takes Theo to museums, libraries, art appraisers, and her new best friend’s fabulous house just down the block. Fitzgerald builds the plot so that the amazing denouement doesn’t seem impossible. In fact, the whole thing is quite satisfactory, with everyone getting their just desserts.
The Gallery is a combination artwork mystery, upstairs-downstairs social commentary, captive princess, and political revenge novel, with one of the best bring-it-back-to-the-starting-point endings I’ve ever read.
It’s fall, 1928. Martha O’Doyle and her mother work as servants at the home of newspaper magnate Archer Sewell and his wife, Rose. Rose never leaves her bedroom, where she hoards her art collection, occasionally sending as many as four pieces to display in the ground floor gallery. Questions trouble Martha — why these pieces? why now? what else is in Rose’s room? why does she never come out? The first set of four paintings each feature a pomegranate, so one day Martha sends one up the dumbwaiter as part of Rose’s lunch. Not Martha’s first misstep, but the one that commits her to finding out what’s going on in that bedroom.
At the end, when the 100-year-old Martha reflects on that year and the decades that followed, she explains her choices with a statement that could apply to what artists do:
Hasn’t the world always been full of monsters and lies? Isn’t it our place to fight them, to tell the truth, to rewrite the story? To ensure the return of spring in a world of winter?
In her commentaries at the end of these books, and on her website, Fitzgerald admits to being inspired by other MG adventure-mysteries about art and museums: E L Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967, reviewed on my blog here) and Chasing Vermeer (2004), the first book in Blue Balliett’s art-heist series. Fitzgerald has earned her place on the bookshelf next to these.