Saturday, October 17, 2009

The five children and it

The cover of this book looks like a teen-centric TV show, doesn't it? Five incredibly glamorous teenagers who are having more fun that you are. But, these teens have ... sold their souls to the devil! The devil in the form of their "governess" Nicola Vileroy. In Another Faust by brother and sister Daniel and Dina Nayeri, Vileroy has adopted five children -- all of whom (but one) want something so badly that they will sell their soul for it. (They did this when they were 10 years old, though, which is a major plot hole for me ... 10-year-olds say and do a lot of stuff they don't mean.) Now 15, Madame Vileroy declares them ready, and she has enrolled them all in the elite Manhattan prep school called Marlowe, where they intend to take all the prizes, accolades and popularity available to them, cementing their bond with the devil.

Recall that Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, and his tale has been told over the centuries in many forms by many authors. Christopher Marlowe, the English playwright who [supposedly] died young under mysterious circumstances, was among those inspired by the story to write a play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Marlowe may also be the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.

Let's review Madame Vileroy's five charges: Victoria (with the glasses) wants academic honors, Valentin to be a poet, Christian an athlete (the seated one?), and Belle (the blonde) the most beautiful and loved by the handsomest boy. Belle's twin sister, Bice (pronounced BEE-chay ... which was always just a bit too close to bitch for me), is the cipher. We don't know what she wants. We do know that she has an uncanny ability to learn languages and that she likes to spend a lot of time by herself.

Kind of intriguing, yes? I wish I could say that the book remained that interesting. After a great set-up, unfortunately it just lies there. Victoria will do anything to win the class presidency, Valentin can rewind time and uses this skill for nefarious purposes, Belle obsesses about her looks, Christian spends time in a coffin (I must have missed the why of this) and competes in various sports. I got no sense that these activities were moving the plot forward in any way. I made a note to myself at Disc 6 (of 9): I'm at Disc 6 and I don't know where this is going.

Now, this uncertainty could be exciting, suspenseful. But it wasn't. The situations and conversations just happened. I got no sense of amassing clues, or that something that occurred would prove critical later on. It was like the Nayeris got a idea -- hey, let's do Faust in high school! -- but it never amounted to anything more than an idea. (According to their website, there are going to be more classic stories retold for the Marlowe School.)

The talented Katherine Kellgren narrates this story, and although her skills definitely elevate the novel I don't think she overcame the inherent weakness of the material. Ultimately, even disparate accents, distinct characters and her flair for storytelling couldn't make it interesting.

Each of the teenagers has a distinct voice, and -- in a clever choice -- when they are 10, their voices have the accent of their non-U.S. origins and when they are teenagers, they all sound American. The other students at Marlowe School all have distinct characters as well, as do the novel's adults. Madame Vileroy is French, and her dialog is always spoken with a quiet menace that could be frightening (if this book was remotely scary). (Kellgren is so very good that Vileroy's pronunciation of Valentin's name [Valen-tahn] is different from the way his siblings pronounce it [Valen-tin].) Her soft delivery was occasionally unintelligible, though, I often had to raise the volume when she was speaking.

Most of the book's chapters begin with a scene in the long life of Madame Vileroy, scenes that took place all over the world. This affords Kellgren the opportunity to produce additional accents and vocal characterizations, all of which she pulls off with skill and confidence.

There is suitably eerie music at the beginning and end of each disc. But this audiobook is kind of like a cheap present in a lot of fancy wrapping paper. The production is professional and the performance up to the narrator's very high standards, but opening it up just demonstrates how flawed and ordinary the important part is.

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