E. L. Konigsburg will forever reign as the spellcaster who handed us the secret desire of every child who has wandered the halls of a great museum. In The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Konigsburg smuggled two runaways into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They proceeded to take up clandestine residence and to discover a treasure and resolve their own prickly problems of belonging. They were extremely bright and precocious children who didn’t act very much like children at all. Great book.
The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World is a variation on a theme, although its hero, Amedeo Kaplan, lives in a Florida backwater next door to a retired opera diva who used to play boys and bitches–the trouser roles. The great, or maybe not-so-great mezzo outgrew her career many decades ago, married a distinguished European and, now widowed, still lives in the Italianate mansion her family’s fortune built in an overgrown hammock on the river. Amedeo and his mother have just moved into the Spanish-style grand house next door.
He’s an odd kid, more like one of the grown-ups who have been his real company for most of his life. Extremely bright. And happy to make a friend, the equally misfit William, part-owner of a property liquidation business with his very nice conciliatory mother. When Aida Lily Tull, now Mrs. Zender, decides to sell her house and move to a retirement community, William and his mom are hired to catalog and sell her stuff. Amedeo gets himself invited to volunteer decluttering and cataloging–a prospect that makes him happy for two reasons. One, William is a cool friend, possibly the first real friend his own age he has ever had, and a fellow conspirator, mature beyond his years. Two, Amedeo has always wanted to discover something–like the caves at Lascaux or a woolly mammoth or something to astonish the world and secure for himself a celebrated place in it. Mrs. Zender’s treasure trove of memorabilia seems to be fertile ground for discovery.
The plot is a little too neat in this one but the characters are so outrageous and so marvelous that you can forgive that. Mrs. Zender’s theatrical life holds some dark secrets. Almost everyone in this book has at least one huge secret and they are hinted at but not always revealed. That keeps things interesting. There are issues upon issues dealt with in the course of the story. Once again, art is front and center and this time it’s the “degenerate” modern art looted during Hitler’s march across Europe. The boys are sharp and self-confident but it’s Mrs. Zender who steals the show. As she means to, being a great diva in every possible sense of the word. Mrs. Zender is so much larger than life that she deserves more than one book.
The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World E. L. Konigsburg | Atheneum 2007