Secrets, sadness, and the geek factor

This review of Sonata #1 for Riley Red by Phoebe Stone appeared in The Boston Globe, January 11, 2004.

"Sonata #1 for Riley Red" by Vermont artist Phoebe Stone begins neatly and ends brilliantly, in a striking reversal of the usual petering out of many young adult novels. Stone has proven her gifts in earlier highly prized works for young readers, including "When the Wind Bears Go Dancing" and "All the Blue Moons at the Wallace Hotel."

The novel's narrator is 13-year-old Rachel, a girl who thinks of herself as ordinary and lifeless, till she is befriended by the eccentric, motherless Desmona and her older brother Riley, whom Rachel secretly (and not so secretly) adores. "One extraordinary thing could make a person's life special," says Desmona. "Anything could happen after that. It wouldn't matter." Such are the dreams of youth.

Rachel is the daughter of an apartment janitor, Desmona lives in a "huge and elegant" house on the same street; Rachel is quiet, Desmona is fiercely outspoken; Rachel is friendless, Desmona befriends every misfit she can set her hands on. Yet when the cadre of outsiders hatches a truly loony and spectacular scheme to save a neglected circus elephant from a down-at-the-heels New England zoo, it is Rachel who must rescue the rescuers.

Stone has set her novel in the heart of Cambridge, and Boston-area readers will recognize landmarks from the mansions of Brattle Street to Longfellow's garden. That alone is worth the price of admission, but Stone's acute sense and celebration of place are matched by her exquisite use of minor characters -- to the empathetic heart no character is minor -- and of language, metaphor especially, "the genius," Aristotle tells us, "which cannot be taught." An indifferent stepmother "looks up for a second as if she's raising a window shade and then pulling it back down." The circus elephant is "dazzling like a great ocean liner. . . . She sways her trunk like the arm of an Indian dancer." And Stone's funny. Desmona tells a timid friend, " 'Don't you feel alive right now? You're not bored. You're not sleepy. You're alive.' 'I hope so,' says Woolsey. 'And I'd like to stay that way. My dad needs me.' "

"Sonata #1 for Riley Red" is a novel about secrets and sadness. It is also about youth and friendship as perhaps no novel has been since "On the Road." The novel works toward its madcap and terrifying climax, reveals its hidden truths, and spins elegantly down to a conclusion that won't leave a dry eye. Stone's books speak to the heart of youth -- its frailty, wild ambitions, and promise. Literature doesn't get much better than this.

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All the Blue Moons at the Wallace Hotel

When the Wind Bears Go Dancing

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Sonata # 1 for Riley Red
Copyright © 2003 by Phoebe Stone