I've been hearing about Hilary McKay's Casson family series for years now. Today I finally read the first book in the series, Saffy's Angel (as my third book in the 48 Hour Book Challenge), and I can see what the fuss was all about. Saffy's Angel is touching and quirky and laugh-out-loud funny.
The four Casson children, Cadmium, Saffron, Indigo, and Rose, live with their mother, Eve, in a ramshackle house in the country. Their father, Bill, visits on weekends, but spends his time during the week in a studio in London. Both parents are artists, though Bill doesn't give much respect to his wife's work. Eve is rather feckless as a mother, Bill is largely absent, and the children have more or less free rein.
The story begins with a flashback to that day that Saffron learns, through the tactlessness of a social worker, that the others aren't technically her siblings. She was adopted into the family at age three, after her mother, Eve's twin, died in an accident. This knowledge changes Saffron, causing her to hold herself a bit aloof from the rest of the family, never completely sure where she belongs. When the action of the story picks up, several years later, Saffy is prickly and difficult, though undeniably part of the family. The title refers to a quest for an artifact from Saffy's childhood, one that just might finally heal her wounds.
The characterization in Saffy's Angel is deep and satisfying. All four of the siblings are distinct, three dimensional, and far from perfect. Caddy has been failing in school, and can't seem to learn to drive, Indigo is a bundle of insecurities, Saffy feels lost, and Rose is fierce and stubborn and passionate about her art. Rose is actually my favorite - she's a keen observer of people, and shows no compunction whatsoever at manipulating her father as needed. Bill is kind of a jerk, but in a benign sort of way, not at all what one might expect of the father in a children's series (neither good nor bad, just flawed and unrealistic in his expectations of his family). One of my favorite scenes is one where Bill, smug, tells Rose to start small, and paint what she knows. Her response is to paint a "vast desert landscape" on the landing. He doesn't deserve her respect, and he doesn't get it.
Saffy's Angel is a fairly episodic book - the plot meanders a bit, giving the reader time to really get to know the Casson family. I'm not generally a fan of episodic plots, but this one worked for me because of the combination of heart and humor. For example, when Saffy's mother died, her grandfather brought her to live with Eve's family. He brought not only Saffy's toys, but every stone and scrap of paper that she used to play with, trying to help her to feel at home with her new family. The other children also go to great lengths to help Saffy when she's older. The humor is harder to get across in a review - it's just there underlying many of the scenes in the book, from Caddy's hopeless in attention when she's driving, to the unusual concoctions assembled by Indigo in the kitchen.
Saffy's Angel falls into a similar category for me that I hold for the Melendy family books by Elizabeth Enright and the Penderwicks books by Jeanne Birdsall. Delightful stories about families that one enjoys spending time with. The Cassons are a bit more flawed than the children of the other series, and there's a hint of British sensibility to the stories (through a surprisingly mild hint, considering that the books are set in England), but the books are similar in tone. Recommended for upper elementary school readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a humorous, quirky slant.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.