The Four-Story Mistake: Elizabeth Enright
June 16, 2006
By way of self-indulgence, I decided to continue the 48 Hour Book Challenge by re-reading an old favorite: The Four-Story Mistake, by Elizabeth Enright. This is Enright's second book in the Melendy family quartet, after The Saturdays (which I reviewed here). In this installment, the Melendy family (Mona, Rush, Randy, Oliver, Father, Cuffy, Willy Sloper, and dog Isaac) move from New York to a big house in the country called the Four-Story Mistake. Times are a bit tough, because World War II is going on, and they don't have a lot of money. But the house, and the 30 acre grounds, and the local village, prove to be paradise for kids.
I believe that I mentioned this in my Saturdays review. One of the things I like best about Elizabeth Enright's books is that she knows what kids will find fun and cool, and she sprinkles her books liberally with the right stuff: caves and hollow trees, a window-lined cupola on the roof, brooks, ice skates, secret rooms, picnics, and tree-houses, to name a few highlights.
The other thing that strikes me on re-reading The Four-Story Mistake is Elizabeth Enright's wonderful writing. She offers paragraph after paragraph filled with dead-on little truths and humorous moments. She shares characters who feel like real people. Randy, the younger Melendy daughter, is my favorite (and one of my cool girls) but the rest of the family is lovable, too. I can especially identify with Randy's joy in finding out that her new bedroom has a window seat, where she can "curl up and read, just like a girl in a bookplate." Here's an example of the dialog from Chapter One:
""That suitcase looks as if it were laughing out loud," Randy said.
"Oh, stop being whimsical," snapped Rush."
I also love Oliver who, at seven, thinks that a damp basement room filled with old books is paradise, and knows that it will be more special if he keeps it a secret. He's this sturdy, determined little kid. When he learns to skate or ride a bike he just plods on through, trying until he can accomplish his new task. Rush, the older brother, is a boy's boy, always wanting to be outdoors, running with his dog, building tree-houses. But he's a piano prodigy, too, and a vigilant watcher of his sister Mona (a budding actress), making sure that she doesn't get a swelled head. Mona is a bit too overtly feminine for my taste, but she still shows moments of coolness. Near the end of the book, Mona is the one to suggest a late night summer visit to the brook with Randy and Rush.
There's not much of a plot to this book. It's more a series of small adventures, and the story of a family adjusting to a new home. But there are dozens of perfect little scenes that bring a smile, or a tear, to your eye. Oliver's exploration of the basement, and Enright's description of the basement's smell and atmosphere, reminded me exactly of the garage basement in my childhood home. The Christmas chapter made me cry. The family is just so happy! There's snow and carols and anticipation and making gifts for each other, and being okay with having fewer presents this year because of the war, and knowing that they're lucky to be together. I can't explain it, exactly. Soppy sentimentalism, I guess. But it made me cry. In a good way.
I'm so glad that I spent this time re-visiting the Melendy family. I loved them when I was a child, and I'm happy to report that, if anything, I love them even more now. If you have a couple of hours to spare, and you could use some laughter and warmth, I highly recommend this series. But start with the first book, The Saturdays.
Book: The Four-Story Mistake
Author: Elizabeth Enright
Publisher: Henry Holt (reissue edition)
Age Range: 9-12
Time Spent: 1 hour, 50 minutes
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.