I’ve been wanting to read Julia Lee’s The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth since it was published in 2013 (Oxford University Press), but for some reason it was not available in the US. Why oh why hasn’t OUP done something to resolve that?
Fortunately, I had a trip planned to the UK this summer, and as soon as I arrived I got a copy and sat down to read it. After finishing, I ask, once again, why oh why is this book not in bookstores in the US? It’s the perfect kid-in-jeopardy book, with a dauntless heroine, creepy villains, and madcap sidekicks that will appeal to middle school and younger readers. (A few second-hand copies are available on Amazon, but that’s not quite the same.)
Clemency Wrigglesworth, 11 years old and alone, is sailing back to England from India. Her mother, who died just before embarking, left Clemency with no money or any idea where they were meant to go upon arrival in Southampton. Two letters are the only clues. Luckily, Mrs. Potchard, who makes her living escorting children to and from England, takes Clemency in hand and tries to find those unknown relatives. An ad in the paper brings the attention of a few mysterious characters, and then Miss Clawe appears,
… tall and thin and dressed in deepest black. Her hair was salt-and-pepper grey, scraped back from her face so fiercely that it pulled her eyebrows up into high arches. She wore an old-fashioned bonnet over it, festooned with black satin ribbons. And she carried–not a parasol–but a black umbrella, tightly furled.
Anyone familiar with the genre will recognize a villainess in Miss Clawe, who sets the plot in motion by kidnapping Clemency. Miss Clawe takes the girl to a manor house in Somerset but immediately puts her to work as a scully in the kitchen. It looks bleak for Clemency.
The family she had been staying with, the Marvels (a perfect name for this clever group of people), give chase, partly because they expect payment for their hospitality, but also because they’re truly concerned about Clemency’s welfare. Meanwhile, Clemency, fearing no one will come to her rescue, takes charge of her own fate. She explores the manor, sneaking grapes off the dining table and jam from the store rooms, discovers the reason for her abduction, and makes plans for her escape.
There are layers to this story, and surprises. Just when you think you’ve figured out who Clemency’s friends and enemies are, Lee takes you in a different direction. Just when you think Clemency will get away, someone steps in her path. In the final face-off, a knife-thrower plays a critical role, as do a butler, a gardener, and a spoiled Pekinese lapdog.
This book fits nicely on the shelf between Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and Philip Pullman’s Count Karlstein, with a hint of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But leave space for sequels — the afterword suggests there’s more to come.