I was wandering around the kids’ section at Barnes and Noble Sunday and my eye fell upon THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart. I thought “good title” (well, isn’t it?), picked it up, read a chapter, bought it, started reading on the subway coming home later, looked up when I was about two-thirds of the way through and saw that it was 11:30 *, gave up any hope of getting to bed at a reasonable hour, and finished around 1am. My point here is, this is a really great book, one which I read cover-to-cover in one evening and did not put down despite being very much a sleep-loving person. Its not a new release, and it was a NYT bestseller (or so the cover informs me), so I’m sure there were lots of reviews when it came out and everyone read it already, but in case anyone else totally missed the boat like me…
I don’t often have a natural inclination to describe books by comparing them to other books, but THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY is like THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY meets 1984, with THE GOLDEN COMPASS’ sense of adventure. The basic concept is 4 children, all exceptionally intelligent and resourceful and each, of course, with their own special strength ** such that together they make the perfect team, go through a series of tests to be chosen for a secret mission to save the world. The characters are excellent – a mix of not quite 100% realistic quirks and genius with extremely realistic and cohesive personalities that you love so much you just decide to believe in them as characters. I particularly appreciated that one of the female characters is the adventuresome, resourceful, physically athletic one (she carries a bucket full of Useful Things), and that this is treated quite naturally by all the other characters. The approach to gender carries through to secondary characters as well – the enemies are remarkably non-gendered while still feeling like real people.
The central mystery is fairly obvious, but their task is less to figure out the mystery than, as I said, to figure out how to save the world. I worried that after the early go-through-the-test, introduce-the-characters part, the humor would fade, but it doesn’t – it stays pretty consistent, as does the just plain good writing (its the combination of the genius kids theme and the writing style that made me think so strongly of E.L. Konigsburg).
Anyway, a quite excellent book, which I highly recommend. I myself I am going to go pick up the sequel tomorrow. (Although I have to say I’m a little afraid two of the characters will develop a romantic relationship in the sequel, which was realistically and refreshingly absent from the first book. I’m a big fan of deep platonic friendships between girls and boys, or men and women for that matter, that just stay platonic.)
* In between I got off the subway and walked home. Its a great book, but not great enough to wind up in Coney Island without realizing it.
** Incredible knowledge of facts and figures/photographic memory; solving puzzles; resourcefulness and athleticism; and, my personal favorite, extreme stubborness and contrariness.