The Visconti House
by Elsbeth Edgar
Ages 8 – 12
U.S. shelves: February 22, 2011 (Originally published July 2009, Walker Books, Australia)
Today Elsbeth Edgar’s The Visconti House is released in the United States.
After living in Melbourne, Laura and her parents move into a fantastic old mansion, located in a small town. The house is gorgeously built. There’s a ballroom (which Laura’s mother, a sculptor, uses as a studio) and one of the bedrooms features a faded mural of a garden. But Laura doesn’t care about the house. She’s lonely and she hates her new school. She wishes her parents would move back to Melbourne, where their lives were more comfortable. Then suddenly things begin to change. A strange boy named Leon moves in down the street and soon after Laura learns that her house has a name – The Visconti House – after the enigmatic Italian immigrant, Carlo Visconti, who built it. Laura and Leon are convinced that The Visconti House harbors a secret and they are determined to uncover it.
The Visconti House is a middle grade mystery that will please any amateur sleuth. Its pacing is a perfect blend of baffles and excitement. Answers aren’t revealed too easily but there aren’t any frustrating wild goose chases either. Personally, I found the ultimate reveal a little tame but I don’t think children will have the same problem. This is an excellent book to recommend to children who enjoy mysteries but aren’t ready for the more mature elements present in adult titles. Do children still read Harriet the Spy? If so, this is a good follow-up. It’s likely to spark an interest in genealogy or local history.
I must give Edgar credit for portraying a great child-parent dynamic. On the whole, parents are problematic in children’s books. If parents are too present they can slow down the action, or worse yet, stop anything exciting from happening at all. Not the best for plot development. I suspect that’s why parents are so often absent in children’s literature. If parents are too busy to notice their children are waking the ancient dead, there can be hijinks aplenty and everyone’s happy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that model necessarily, it just becomes a little rote.
Fortunately, Edgar has managed to dodge the absent parent stereotype. Actually, make that two stereotypes that she sidesteps. Even though Laura’s parents are artistes, they act like reasonable adults. At one point Laura is all ready to tear down a boarded up wall when her father steps in and says, “You know, I’m not exactly comfortable with you smashing holes in our house to satisfy your curiosity.” I think we can all relate to that conversation from both sides. I also appreciated that although Laura’s parents are eccentric and have quirky artist friends, they are still involved in her life and make her do things she isn’t too keen about, like attending school. Weirdly, that’s not as common in fiction as you’d think it’d be.
One thing to note: Laura is supposed to be in Grade 8 (high school) but she and her classmates act much younger, closer to 5th or 6th graders, I’d say. This causes the romance plot to feel forced, although Leon and Laura have a charming friendship. Given the emotional immaturity of the characters, I think this book would appeal to tweens more than young adults.
For reference, here is the original Australian cover.
I prefer the U. S. version, don’t you? I think it has more shelf appeal. Also, the Australian cover looks a little too Wait Till Helen Comes, which isn’t this book’s vibe at all.
Review copy provided by publisher.