Though he had a long career as an illustrator of children’s books, Brian Selznick first came to my attention with “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” his huge, beautiful novel in pictures for children.
With that book, he seemed to have reinvented both the picture book and the novel by telling his true(ish) story of a boy who, despite his bleak existence living in the walls of a train station, created something beautiful. Despite its 533 pages, the story isn’t told in many words. Instead, vivid, intimate pictures put the readers at the center of this fanciful, though slightly unfulfilling story.
His followup in this format was “Wonderstruck,” which tells two interconnected stories that take place 50 years apart about two people coming to terms with deafness and a family secret. Told in the same manner as “Hugo” — long sections of pictures interspersed with small sections of text — it’s even less successful because the hokey story isn’t terribly compelling.
With his new novel, “The Marvels,” Selznick shakes things up. In it, he tells two related stories, one only in pictures and one only in words.
The first story begins on a ship in the 1600s. A storm sinks the ship (what is it with me and sinking boats lately?) and a young boy is the only survivor. Picking up his life in London, he wanders into a theater and becomes part of the company. That begins a centuries-long theater dynasty. His children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren become the greatest actors of their eras and make the name of the Marvels known around the world. But one arrogant, talented descendent threatens to destroy himself and the legendary theater his family created.
The second story, told in prose, is set in the mid 1990s. An unhappy teenaged boy, Joseph, runs away from his boarding school to the uncle he’s never met in London. The uncle is a tortured soul who is the talk of his neighborhood, and not in a good way. He lives the way people did at the turn of the century, in a home with no electricity, being driven places in a horse and carriage and wearing tuxedo, top hat and cloak to the theater.
The two slowly build a relationship, though the uncle is damaged and secretive, and unwilling to let Joseph into his life. As this story unfolds, and we discover the sadness that colors the uncle’s life, the readers hear clues that connect the uncle and Joseph with the legendary Marvels dynasty whose story is told in the first half of the book.
I don’t want to say too much more, as it might spoil some of the pleasures that await the reader. I don’t want to spoil them because —aside from the illustrations — there aren’t many. The story is based, in part, on a real man who lived as the uncle did. It may have been Selznick’s launching point, but he flies in an uninspired direction. I was left neither entertained nor interested in the story. It was the pictures that enthralled me. I often felt bad I spent so little time looking at the drawings, when Selznick clearly spent so much thought, love and time on them.
A brief warning: Though it didn’t bother me because I’m an adult, the book is aimed at children, and the themes and plot might raise some questions among younger readers.
Here’s hoping that one day, Selznick will find a story that’s as amazing as his pictures.