Book: The Visconti House
Author: Elsbeth Edgar
Age Range: 9-14
Charlotte Taylor wrote to recommend Elsbeth Edgar's The Visconti House to me, saying that she thought that I would like it because it reminded her of other books that she knew I loved. And Charlotte was right. The Visconti House is about a girl named Laura who has trouble fitting in at school, her developing friendship with a boy named Leon (who has issues of his own), and the quest of the two kids to uncover the history of an intriguing house.
The Visconti House is a crumbling, Italian-style mansion that stands out from its small town surroundings. Laura and her parents have recently moved into the house, to give Laura's artist mother more room to work. When Leon's grandmother shares her childhood memories of the original owner of the house, Mr. Visconti, Laura and Leon find their curiosity piqued. Especially when it appears, though little information is available, that Mr. Visconti built the house for a lost love. This sets the two reluctant allies on a search for the truth about events that took place more than 100 years earlier.
The Visconti House has an old-fashioned feel. Although there are occasional references to the Internet, Laura and Leon don't seem to have cell phones, and spend time looking through old documents in the library. They even send an important letter by post! Of course they are investigating a century-old mystery, so it makes sense that things wouldn't be online or well-documented. But the book still has a timeless quality to it - I think that it will stand up well to being read in the future.
I like Edgar's writing style. While not flowery, she fills it with sights, sounds, and smells. She also shares feelings and motives as often as facts. Here are a couple of examples:
"Laura raced Isabella up the wide staircase and across the landing to the narrow stairs that led to the attic. They had to bend to go through the low door. A little light was filtering in through the cobwebs over the skylight, but the corners were dark and full of mystery. The whole space smelled of dust and dry timber, and the floor creaked as they walked across it." (Page 33)
"Those words again. Not like yours. Laura felt something snap inside her. Everything was always not like hers. Her house was different. Her parents were different. Their friends were different. No one else at school was writing a book about dragons, and no one else would have torn up part of it if they had been. They wouldn't have cared. And now Leon Murphy, who didn't talk to anyone, was talking to her. She must be terribly, terribly different." (Page 47)
"Laura discovered that it was more intriguing exploring the house with someone else, someone her own age. It had been fun in the attic with Isabella, but this was fun in a completely different way. It was like looking at the house with someone who was the same height, who saw things from the same angle—although differently, which was what made it interesting." (Page 111-112)
I think that Edgar did a good job portraying Laura and Leon's relationship. It's by no means an automatic friendship. They are suspicious of and downright rude to one another at first, until their common interest brings them together. Because Leon is a loner, and gossiped about, Laura is initially ashamed to be seen with him, even though she likes him. This doesn't always show Laura in the best light, but it's a realistic portrayal that I think middle schoolers will relate to. The other kids at school aren't as well-developed (I couldn't really tell the three gossipy girls who tease Laura apart). But Laura, Leon, and the adults in their lives are all three-dimensional and interesting.
The Visconti House is set in Australia (near Melbourne). There are only a few references likely to confuse American readers. A couple of unfamiliar animals are mentioned (I had to look up "echidna"). And there's mention of the end of the school year and the start of the summer taking place around Christmastime. (Australian school years run from late January or early February through mid-December, and of course the seasons are reversed from ours in America). There's also reference to Laura and Leon being in Year 8, and being in High School. I looked this up, and learned that in most parts of Australia, there's no middle school. Kids start Secondary School as early as 12. I believe that Laura and Leon are meant to be about 13 or 14 (though they seem a bit younger than that to me).
The publisher (Candlewick) posts this book as for ages 9 and up. I would agree that it's suitable for middle grade/upper elementary school readers. But I also think that it would be a good pick for middle schoolers. While the primary plot centers around the mystery of Mr. Visconti's past, Laura's trials at fitting in at school (popularity, feeling different, thinking about dating, etc.) also play a major role in the book.
As Charlotte predicted, The Visconti House does remind me of the books that I loved as a kid, filled with mysterious houses, secret rooms, and picnics in the countryside. It's an excellent read, highly recommended for upper elementary and middle school readers, or anyone who can't resist the idea of exploring a dusty old mansion, and solving a 100-year-old mystery.
Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: February 22, 2011
Source of Book: Bought it, after a personal recommendation from Charlotte Taylor, who reviewed it at Charlotte's Library.
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).