Wednesday, August 7, 2013


YA Guy’s wife picked up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from a display rack in Barnes & Noble.

Which was a bit peculiar in itself, since she tends to shy away from fantasy.

When she set the book aside to move on to her more favored historical fiction, I grabbed Miss Peregrine and plunged in. I was intrigued by the concept, the way in which debut novelist Ransom Riggs weaves oddball period photos into the story of marooned sideshow children, and I’d heard good things about the book. Plus, as you all know, YA fantasy is right up my alley!

But the thing is, it took me a really long time to get into the story. For the first hundred pages or so, I found the pace uneven (at times too rushed, at others too protracted), the narrative (which involves time travel, never one of my favorite subjects) too convoluted, the dialogue too labored. A writer-friend of mine confessed she’d had the same problems with the book, and wondered whether it had originally been a stand-alone chopped up into a series. Whatever the case, I seriously considered setting the book aside.

But I’m glad I didn’t.

For in the end, Riggs’s strange story won me over. Once fifteen-year-old narrator Jacob Portman stopped shuttling between his own world and the world of the peculiar children and became firmly committed to their struggle against the monstrous antagonists Riggs names the hollowgast--scary-as-hell fiends with tentacles for tongues and a voracious appetite for children’s flesh--I let my reservations slide. A good monster can often do that for me.

More importantly, though, I too became more committed to Miss Peregrine’s world as it unfolded. During the novel’s first third, I got so distracted by its unconventional presentation that every little flaw loomed unusually large. By two-thirds of the way through the book, I’d become comfortable enough with the concept to ignore it and simply enjoy the story. When I did, I found some real pleasures in the reading, as in this lovely passage where Jacob considers revealing his hidden life to his clueless father:

I wanted to tell him. I wanted to explain everything, and for him to tell me he understood and offer some tidbit of parental advice. I wanted, in that moment, for everything to go back to the way it had been before we came here; before I ever found that letter from Miss Peregrine, back when I was just a sort-of-normal messed-up rich kid in the suburbs. Instead, I sat next to my dad for awhile and talked about nothing, and I tried to remember what my life had been like in that unfathomably distant era that was four weeks ago, or imagine what it might be like four weeks from now--but I couldn’t. Eventually we ran out of nothing to talk about, and I excused myself and went upstairs to be alone.

As this passage shows, folded into Riggs’s tale of peculiar children is the feeling all young people have of being peculiar: misunderstood, unloved, unlovable. In that respect, the concept that I’d found so nettlesome in the early going started to make perfect sense: just like the orphan photos rescued by Riggs from oblivion, his tale is about a teen’s discovery of how brutal the world can be to those deemed different.

We grown-ups have typically become so complacent about our own normality that we forget the time when it mattered profoundly, for better and for worse, to be odd. Riggs’s odd story reminds us of that time, and celebrates, in today’s sadly conventional world, the saving power of strangeness.


  1. Replies
    1. Why, thank you! It seems my years of writing literary criticism translate nicely into book reviewing!

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  3. I recently finished this book as well and had a similar reaction.

    It took me about a hundred pages or so to really get into the tale, and I found the thing that initially prompted me to make the impulse buy at Barnes & Noble (the creepy-real photos) became one of the book's weaknesses in the end. I thought Riggs was really stretching to fit some of them into the narrative and was almost hindered by his decision to include them at all.

    That being said, the photos alone are great and the ending left me at least mildly curious for the sequel!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. Yeah, I thought some of the photos--like the duo of pipe-smoking women--made little narrative sense and were included only because the author thought it looked funky to have two women smoking meerschaum pipes!

  4. Great review.

    Random side note: I just saw on Twitter that he's engaged to Tahereh Mafi, author of SHATTER ME!

    1. Wow! I wonder what kind of peculiar (book) children the two will give birth to now!