‘The Marvels’ by Brian Selznick
Did I go into Brian Selznick’s The Marvels expecting some beautifully detailed pencil drawings? Yes.
Did I go into the book hoping for something as whimsical as Selznick’s first such book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret? Yes.
But did I go into the book expecting to break down in desolate weeping about three-quarters of the way through, profoundly moved? No. Not at all. Wow, did I not see that coming.
The Marvels is the third in a stylistic trilogy Selznick started almost ten years ago with Hugo Cabret and that continued with Wonderstruck in 2011. All three books combine Selznick’s pencil drawings to tell half the story, while his able prose picks up the rest. In both Hugo and Wonderstruck, the story alternates, with some pages of illustration — lush, edge-to-edge illustrations that are so detailed and natural-looking that you can almost feel the fresh graphite dust — followed by some pages of text and so on. Hugo was particularly good at this; no part of the story there was repeated as you were led along, partially with words and partially with pictures.
The Marvels is different in that the first half of the book is entirely pictoral and the second half is all words, each half seemingly disconnected (or perhaps not…? How mysterious!) from the other. There are then a few additional pages of illustration at the end and then a textual afterword. It’s a slightly different feeling than Selznick’s two previous books, but since they were both so good, you’re willing to go along with him on this new journey.
Given that I knew nothing about the story before I read it — I didn’t even read the flyleaf — I’m somewhat loath to share any details about the book in recommending it to preserve as much of the magic and mystery as possible. Indeed, since the New York Times‘ review was more of a synopsis, I’ll direct you there if you’re looking for a preview of the plot.
My hesitation to get into details aside, this book is flat-out incredible. I can’t recall the last time I was so deeply moved by fictional characters nor can I think of a more thoughtful book in addressing the importance of fiction alongside historic fact. All the hoped-for imagination and creativity that are hallmarks of Selznick’s previous books are on full display, honed by the two previous books to heights of utter mastery. His drawings are still beautiful, but his stories and characters have gotten somehow even more individual and his ability to tell them even more stunning.
That isn’t to say there aren’t lulls in the narrative. After the engaging off-to-the-races beginning of the written words part, there is then a distinct lag as the young and overly impatient main characters wrestle with the mystery that surrounds them. There’s a lot of plucky rule-breaking that comes across as rather more destructive and thoughtless than useful in their search for answers. The inevitable reveal is sufficiently lovely to make it all worthwhile, but I still feel it could have come a bit sooner in this 600+-page book.
But that is a very, very minor qualm. As I read the last quarter of the book through tears (I kid you not, and I’m not one to cry readily at books), I was hard-pressed to think who I could possibly recommend it to. Who was this remarkable book even for? It’s a deep book and one which deals in tragedy as much as creation and joy. My entire perception of the book shifted in that last quarter and made it difficult to imagine children reading it at all. The Marvels is published by Scholastic, but it is so far from a “kid’s book” that it’s hard to pin down in terms of genre or audience.
In the end, I can only say that The Marvels was an incomparable reading experience and one which I look forward to repeating. It is currently vying in my affections for my favorite of the trilogy — I’m clearly going to have to reread Hugo Cabret to be able to judge — and I’m almost afraid what magical thing Brian Selznick will conjure for his next trick. Afraid, but also looking forward to it immeasurably. Read this book. Now.