13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
Genre: young adult fiction, adventure, travel
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary: Ginny’s Aunt Peg was someone she had always looked up to – a spontaneous, beautiful artist who travelled the world, thriving on whimsy and the unexpected. Two things definitely missing from Ginny’s suburban NJ life. So she should be thrilled to receive a letter from her aunt, telling her to pick up a mysterious package in NYC and then hop a plane to London to meet her.
There’s a catch – her aunt had died months before from cancer. But she left behind 13 letters for Ginny, with specific tasks that must be completed in order to open the next letter. Ginny soon finds herself retracing her aunt’s journey across Europe, doing things she never thought herself capable of.
Due to a confluence of events, I have an iPad for a week! Just to be annoyingly thorough – the library is trying to keep up with the technological times. So we purchased a bunch of fun and exciting stuff which the staff gets to play with first. So once I return this baby, I am going to be yearning for one to call my own. But I am both cheap and poor, which means I will never own an iPad unless I win the lottery or get a cushy job. Ha!
Why do you care? Because due to fortuitous timing, Maureen Johnson’s book 13 Little Blue Envelopes is available for FREE for the next 13 days. (Go here for more info/directions on how to get your own copy.) So even if you are both poor and/or cheap like I, you can get a free digital copy. All you need is a computer, and you can download the nook version. (Free is our friend here at The Bibliomantics. See our job descriptions.) In honor of the queen of twitter and the generous boon to her loyal subjects, my review this week is on the excellent 13 Little Blue Envelopes.
The setup of this book creates a really engrossing narrative. You want to know what crazy, free-spirited Aunt Peg is going to have Ginny do next. Some of the tasks are really embarrassing or nerve-wracking or just plain silly. And Ginny is not her aunt- she *hates* some of the tasks, but she feels compelled to honor her aunt’s final wishes. Even when it’s the last thing on earth she wants to do – like ask a stranger out for cake in Rome. To which Ginny angrily thinks, “Go see old virgins! Now ask out a strange boy, you shy, retarded thing!” Ginny is obviously far more reserved than her aunt ever was, but the commentary is hilarious. You want to know if and how Ginny will complete the task, and putting this book down before the final pages will prove very difficult.
The characterization is really well done, and I think it comes down to MJ’s ability to add backstory to even minor characters. There are surprising details that create a new understanding of someone, without intruding too much into the main narrative flow. Olivia Knapp is one of these minor characters, who seems kinda bitchy at first. Something is revealed which adds new depth to what the reader and Ginny thought was a one dimensional person. It’s a nice and subtle way of introducing the idea that there is always more to a person than we expect. There is a really admirable balance between the fine details and the broad plot in the novel. The many locations Ginny visits are an excellent example of MJ’s abilities. As there were so many cities, I didn’t expect to remember them all. But the details were so precise and fresh that I remember each one vividly.
Conversely, I feel we are missing out on some rather important details. Like how did Ginny convince her very staid mother to allow her 17 year old daughter to traipse across Europe without even a cellphone (one of aunt pegs rules for the journey)? I feel like Ginny’s home life is left out almost entirely, and we only get very small pieces of it when she writes to her best friend Miriam. I know we are supposed to jump right into the story as we follow Ginny on her journey, but I really think it needed some more backstory to make it more believable. Small complaint, but I was distracted by the lack of info about her home life.
Aunt Peg’s letters are just popping with her personality, and you can feel the magnetic pull of someone with that level of charisma. I was jealous of Ginny for having such a cool aunt who could show her around NYC, and take her halfway across the globe. But as you get further into the novel, you realize that not everything is as perfect as Ginny first makes out. Aunt Peg ran away from her problems and anything she deemed too serious, and Ginny discovers this leaves behind people who are hurt by this behavior. Herself included.
This book is really rather tragic – as Ginny follows in her aunt’s footsteps, she finds her understanding of her aunt growing. The letters reveal more and more about her life, and how much Ginny was now missing. It’s like you can see the relationship getting more complex, but it cannot actually because Aunt Peg is dead. It doesn’t seem possible for someone so young and vibrant in memory to be gone from the world. But she is, and this is something Ginny must confront.
This all builds to a rather unexpected ending (but not in a bad way). I thought it was going to be unsatisfying after a certain event that I shall not give away, but it ties up really beautifully. Big ideas about what it means to be alive and to love someone are explored, but it’s not out of the blue. Nor does it beat you over the head with the big Literary Stick of Meaning. This journey is transformative for Ginny, but it’s realistic. The shenanigans are tempered with an emotional depth that makes 13 Little Blue Envelopes an engaging, witty, and stirring story.
And um hey – it’s free. Go read it now, you’ll be glad you did.