The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really wish Goodreads allowed half-star ratings, because I just don't think four stars are adequate to indicate how much I truly enjoyed this book. The King in the Window is a wonderful, imaginative work of children's literature, and I honestly can't believe it doesn't seem to be more popular. I had never even heard of it, myself; I only discovered it by accident while going through the books my aunt had set aside for charity. The title caught my eye first, of course, so I read the first page to see if it sounded like the sort of thing I'd be interested in and I thought, hey, this seems like it could be fun, I should read it before we give it away. And I'm so glad I did, too, because it turned out to be even better than I expected.
The story is about Oliver, an American boy stuck in Paris, who has few friends: Neige, the older girl with whom he is in love, but who is currently not speaking to him; Charlie, who is separated from him by an ocean; and the mysterious Zindaine, who is mentioned but never seen. Oliver attends a rigorous French école, where he does poorly because he doesn't understand his demanding coursework. He is ridiculed by his classmates and treated badly by his strict teachers. And he even feels isolated at home. He is infantilized by his mother, who spends so much time running away from her problems at home that she can't see Oliver is growing up. His father, on the other hand, seems to be standing still; a journalist who has become obsessed with the exclusive that could be the break he needs, he has withdrawn from his family and become a shadow haunting his office and staring into the computer for hours.
This is the lonely and depressing existence Oliver leads. Until the night of Epiphany, that is, when he suddenly becomes the King of Windows and Water through a series of accidents. Or so he thinks, at first. That's one of the things I enjoyed most about this book: the quality of Gopnik's foundation-building and the subtlety of his foreshadowing. Unlike most authors of children's novels, who tend to lay everything out in front of you and give you all the information you need as quickly as possible, holding only one or two things back, Gopnik instead plays his cards close to the vest, and every time you think you're starting to figure things out, he throws something else on the table and shakes things up again. Details that were mentioned earlier in the book, but that you didn't pay much attention to at the time, turn up again later on and end up being more important than ever. It's a method that makes for an ever-evolving and unpredictable story that keeps you guessing right up to the very end, and it is awesome. I love it when I can't put a book down because I can't wait to find out what happens next.
But this book is more than just a lot of fun; it's also educational. While kids are reading about Oliver saving the world from the Master of Mirrors, they can also learn a little about French culture, a little French history, a little of the language, and even a little bit about quantum theory. Along the way on his journey, Oliver visits the Louvre, Versailles, Sainte-Chapelle, and the Eiffel Tower. He meets Molière, Racine, and the Duc de Richelieu. He learns about quanta, about multiverse theory, and also about important distinctions in language: the difference between irony and sarcasm, simile and metaphor, and rhetoric. Important stuff for a kid to learn about, considering there are so many adults who don't even understand things like irony. (Hint: it's not like rain on your wedding day.)
I think the best thing about this book, however, is the message, which I think can be summed up by these two paragraphs:
...Seeing Charlie's face, newly lit with courage, Oliver knew at last what the golden lie was that Mrs. Pearson had promised to tell him about when he was ready. The golden lie was the greatest lie of all--it was the lie you told others about your own courage, in order to make them courageous. And what made it golden, Oliver saw, was that it was shiny, reflective. Your pretending to be brave when you weren't made other people braver than they really were--and their bravery bounced back on you, as Charlie's was doing now, and made you brave. The golden lie was the lie of courage when you didn't have it, which meant that you did, which made you brave.
He found his crown on the floor and, tattered and creased as the paper was by now, he put it on. He understood that to be a king at all it is necessary to act like a king even if you do not feel like a king, and that to be a good king you must first accept your crown, and wear it proudly, come what may. Courage is measured in what you do, not how you feel. Everyone is always afraid. The brave, he knew now, just lie about it better than the rest of us.
Now, some people may object, claiming that this encourages kids to lie. But I disagree, and frankly, I think to say that is to entirely miss the point. What this teaches is not that it's okay to lie, or that some lies are good, or whatever. After all, by the time a kid is old enough to read this book, they're old enough to have already learned that there is a difference between bad lies ("No, Mom, I didn't steal $20 from your purse") and acceptable lies ("No, Mom, that dress doesn't make you look fat"). Rather, what it teaches is this:
Courage isn't something you're born with. It's not something you gain magically, or that comes to you when you learn to stop being afraid. It's not something that some people have and other people don't. Anybody can be brave. Any old kid looking out his (or her!) window can be a king; you don't have to be extraordinary to change the world. All you need is to care about something enough to want to make a difference.
An important message, I think, and one that's far better than the messages kids are picking up from the television every day.
So I suppose it stands to question, if I feel so strongly about this book, why I don't just go ahead and give it five stars. And the thing is, as much as I enjoyed it, I definitely feel there were parts of the story that could have been explained better. There were certain concepts, particularly toward the end of the book, that were not necessarily hard to comprehend so much as they were hard to visualize. Now, I understand that Gopnik was probably trying to control the word count on what is already a rather lengthy children's novel (416 pages, as opposed to the 350 or less that is more common, in my experience). However, if I, as an adult, have trouble following or picturing certain aspects of a story, then imagine how the book's intended audience must feel.
Also, frankly, the very end was pretty sloppy. First of all, by the end of the story, Oliver has been running around Paris for, what, three days without checking in with his parents? His father may have known what he was up to, but since neither of them bothered informing Oliver's mother, why didn't she say anything about it? Am I the only one whose mother would have had several litters of kittens and at least one entire cow had I gone gallivanting around a major city--or any city--at the age of twelve without showing my face at home for three days? Especially after I'd already been caught lying to her about where I'd been and skipping school. My mother would not have given the barest fraction of a shit whether I'd been in the company of some famous, award-winning author, or even the President of the United States himself; if she had found out I'd cut school without her express permission, she would have shot fire out of her nostrils! No joke. And I find it a bit too unbelievable that Oliver's mother didn't have a similar reaction.
Furthermore, speaking of mothers, at the end of the book, Neige's mother is...well, I don't want to have to put a spoiler warning on this, so let's just say she's out of ambit. (Bonus points for Young Wizards reference, y/y?) And since Neige doesn't have a father, that means she's on her own until she can get her mother back, if she can get her mother back, and who knows how long that will take. Does anyone else see the problem with a thirteen-year-old girl being on her own for an indefinite period of time? Does France not have a social services department? Tsk-tsk, Mr. Gopnik, a silly and avoidable oversight.
It's for these reasons that I cannot, in good conscience, give this book a full five stars. However, I do not think that this should at all deter people from reading it.
The King in the Window is inspired and imaginative in a way that reminds me strongly of Neil Gaiman in his ability to create worlds within worlds and to make it believable. Despite being a children's novel, and though it is unequivocally a work of fantasy, The King... is a strikingly credible story about an ordinary boy who does something extraordinary. It's fun, and it's touching, and it's exciting, and it's funny, all in a way that I think should make it enjoyable for readers of all ages.
Kobra Kid, signing off.
[You can't stop the signal.]
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