The Willoughbys opens with scenes of an old-fashioned sort of family, consisting of a mother, a father, an eldest son (Tim), a pair of male twins, both named Barnaby (called A & B), and a daughter named Jane. The twistiness underlying the plot quickly comes to the fore, as we learn that the parents are selfish sorts who find children bothersome and would prefer to get rid of them: the mother prefers knitting a sweater for the cat to providing a second sweater for the twins, who are forced to take turns wearing a single sweater, and only read a book once, having abandoned it because of its appalling use of adjectives; the father is rigid and somewhat distracted and decidedly disinterested in his children.
The children actually fare little better at first look: Tim is portrayed as a bit of a tyrant who rules over the children with arbitrary games to which only he knows the rules, all the boys routinely exclude poor Jane, who dreams of mustering enough chutzpah to stand up and have her own opinion, and all of the children rapidly arrive at the conclusion that they would prefer to be orphans. Much of the family dynamic is demonstrated when an infant girl is left on their doorstep by someone operating under the mistaken belief that the Willoughbys are a happy, loving family: Mother Willoughby expresses distress over the crying sounds and cuts off the child's curls to render her less attractive, then tells the children to get rid of her. The children take her to the home of an eccentric billionaire several blocks away and leave her there with a note.
The plot rapidly shapes up as the parents embark on an extremely dangerous trip, leaving the children in the care of a nanny. The history of the eccentric billionaire is also brought to light, and, as you may expect, some twists and turns along the way to what proves to be a highly satisfying ending. Throughout, Lowry employs an omniscient narrator, who occasionally comments on the goings-on in the book, more in the way of Jane Austen's narrators than along the lines of Daniel Handler's narrator, Lemony Snicket, himself somehow intertwined with the events in the book. No, this is a more old-fashioned omniscient narrator, who feels free to comment directly to readers, sometimes with a wink, but without actually injecting herself into the plot. And yet, Lowry is similar to Snicket in her gleeful send-up of recent novels using such devices (including, as it happens, Handler's Snicket novels, inasmuch as he at least employed the convention of a loving core family as a starting point, with evildoers from outside the family, whereas Lowry turns all that on its head, beginning with somewhat difficult people in an unpleasant family plotting to be rid of one another, and introducing kind people outside the family who wish to be of help).
Throughout the book, the old-fashioned Willoughby children make reference to well-known, mostly old, children's books that discuss either orphans (e.g., Anne of Green Gables, James and the Giant Peach) or the finding of babies (e.g., The Bobbsey Twins and Baby May) or the behavior of nannies (Mary Poppins) or the notion of parents who want to be rid of their children (Hansel and Gretel) or even books about eccentric wealthy bachelors (A Christmas Carol). They use these old-fashioned books as guidebooks of sorts, trying to sort out what their next steps should be based on what the various orphan or orphan-like children in the books did. There are, in all, thirteen such books referenced throughout the story, and they are handily collected and summarized at the back of the book.
The summaries are entertaining in and of themselves, as Ms. Lowry notes that, for instance, A Christmas Carol includes the character of Tiny Tim, who "is not an orphan, but acts like one." The back of the book also contains a glossary for some of the difficult words (most often adjectives), including words like heinous, lugubrious and odious. Lowry included it as a help for her grandson (and presumably other children), who did not understand some of her word choices. The words are defined correctly (as opposed to some of Lemony Snicket's definitions through the Series of Unfortunate Events), but frequently include small stories to illustrate the meaning of the word, usually accurately, but with a great sense of mischievous fun.
The one gag that didn't really work for me was the repeated references to the foundling girl, who is given the name Ruth and referred to by the candy-making eccentric billionaire (who is not Willy Wonka-like) as "Baby Ruth" throughout, in the service of a tortured joke that ultimately fell flat for me. But it is a rather minor quibble, I think, when I enjoyed so much of the rest of the novel.
I have at present passed my copy on to my friend Angela, whom I am hoping will share it with her older son, who is in 4th grade. And once it returns, I hope to trick M into reading it, as I would very much like to hear her thoughts on the story. As a grownup, I found the book charming and delightful and tremendous good fun, but I am very interested in finding out how kid readers respond to it, and whether the humor carries to the younger set. I rather suspect it will, and that Ms. Lowry's wicked parody of orphan novels and apparent homage to Roald Dahl (intentional or otherwise) will be a smashing success.
Either way, I highly recommend this one to readers of all ages, who will enjoy the old-fashioned references and modern wit in this tale of dysfunctional families and the ability to form new, better families if need be. Although, for another take on the book, see Mother Reader's review of the book, posted today. Proving that great minds (or at least MR's and mine) think alike, at least as to books read, if not as to the opinions of them.