I can’t remember the last time I had a nightmare about a book, but man, I had a nightmare about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children last night. It’s funny. I read the book, I had a lot of things I loved about it and a lot of things I didn’t like. I talked it over with the Butcher some and that made me think the book was more problematic than I’d realized at first read, because the writing is so good.
But then, I woke up in a start from a nightmare in which I was the mother of Jacob, the main character, and I was running all over, trying to find him, because he was lost.
And this morning I realized that I can’t remember ever reading a book in which the main character did something as monumentally cruel as what Jacob does to his parents without it being understood as cruel in the course of the book, which I think is kind of my problem with the whole book. This is like an amazing, brilliant, moving first draft.
But where was the person who went through and said, “Okay, so Jacob’s grandfather–Abraham–is a Jewish Holocaust survivor (the only one in his large family, it turns out) who joins up with the Welsh X-men, only to later lose all of the Welsh X-men in a horrible bombing (kind of). And Jacob’s name is, obviously, ‘Jacob.’ Is Jacob’s family Jewish? If so, where is that in the book?”
I mean, I don’t need every facet of the book to be about Jacob and his relationship to Judaism, but it is fundimental to his grandfather’s identity, mentioned over and over. And yet, there’s no mention of it in Jacob’s life. Not even a passing mention of a Bar Mitzvah. At his sixteenth birthday, there’s only one other kid there. Okay, fine, I’m not Jewish, but I was raised in a religious community and, even if I had no friends, my parents’ social circle would have included friends my age who would have been forced to come to a party for me to which their parents were also invited and we would have all had to fake make-nice.
But Jacob is alone and alienated from the world in a way that seems very non-religious. Which is not to say that religious people can’t be alone and alienated from the world. I certainly felt that way at his age. Just that it has different contours. Plus, I feel like there’s good reason why Jacob’s father–considering his strained relationship to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham–might not be very religious and might have raised his family to be non-religious. But it sure would have been interesting to know if that’s the case.
Okay, and then we come to the Back to the Future problem. So, Abraham has been this weird, distant figure who tells these crazy stories about monsters, which his kids and thus Jacob come to believe are actually metaphors about the Nazis. But it turns out, no. The monsters and the peculiar children (who are, not joking, basically Welsh X-men) are real. And it turns out that the peculiar children have been being kept hidden from the monsters by them living the same day–September 3, 1940–over and over again (though they are aware of it). Now, Abraham was one of these peculiar children. And he decided that he didn’t want to be stuck in one of these time loops. So he left and went on to have a September 4th and a September 5th and so on down into the present, where he died.
His grandson goes into the time loop, to that repeating September 3. Fine. And yes, it makes sense that his grandfather is not there, since he left the time loop. But there’s a girl in the time loop who has been in love with Abraham for over seventy years. And she begins a kissing flirtation with Jacob, in part because Abraham is dead.
But the time loop is destroyed, with Jacob stuck in 1940. So, Jacob starts coming up through time at September 4th, 1940. And there’s no explanation of whether they’re in a timeline when his grandpa exists, and, if so, if they should try to get Abraham and his girlfriend, who Jacob has been smooching, back together. After all, yes, it’s been seventy years for her, but it’s clear she’s still crazy about Abraham and Abraham, since it’s, you know, September 5th or whatever, would still be crazy about her. Is Jacob going to steal his Grandpa’s girl?
And was there no one to ask the author whether Jacob should avoid running into his Grandpa or if he’s taken the place of his Grandpa in this timeline? Should they attempt a rescue of the people they’re trying to rescue or will it alter history in such a way that they should just accept their losses now? If Jacob gets Abraham back with his girl (Emma, I think) would Jacob cease to exist because his grandpa and grandma never got together?
How do you grow up in a post-Marty McFly era and not work this shit out. People, there’s not even a passing mention of the fact that Jacob and his young grandpa are now alive at the same time.
But this brings me to the part of the book that, apparently, bothered me so deeply that it gave me nightmares. Jacob’s grandfather is the only remaining Portman (this is a side note. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to understand that Abraham changed his name from… I don’t know…. Portmanski or if Ransom Riggs was just like “Oh, hey, Natalie Portman’s Jewish. I’ll use her last name.”) in the world. He lived through the loss of his whole family to the Germans and the crushing weight of history. Then he had to give up his whole family of peculiar children, including the woman he loved, to go fight the monsters that threatened them. Then, for understandable reasons, he’s not really able to be a good father to his children (with the emotional trauma and the skipping out to fight monsters stuff), which we know from the text was extremely hard on Jacob’s father. We know Jacob’s father felt his dad was distant and couldn’t really love them. We know Jacob’s father thinks Abraham was even carrying on an affair. We know, from Jacob’s father having a difficult and emotional conversation with Jacob about it, that Jacob’s father and Abraham’s relationship was so strained that Jacob’s father is a little jealous of Jacob’s good relationship with Abraham.
At the end of the book, Jacob and his father are in Wales on a trip (well, they have been for the whole second part of the book). His mom is back home in Florida. They have all recently suffered the loss of Abraham. Jacob is their only son.
And Jacob abandons his parents with only a photograph and a note to explain it.
I bought it. But it doesn’t sit right. Yes, of course, he has to go off and fulfill his destiny. And that’s probably not going to be an easy discussion to have with your parents.
But man, It bothers me that he just ditches them without making a real effort to give his father the insight and information he’d need to understand and have some peace about Abraham. And it bothered me that there never was a moment when the weight of what he was doing to his father–abandoning a man, who’d just lost his own father, who was–with his sister and you–one of the last three members of his whole family, and who shares with you how he felt abandoned by his father, in a foreign country to return to a marriage he knows is crumbling to report that he has lost their son.
Who could do that to a man who is willing to do whatever he knows how to do to ensure your well-being without real conflicted feelings?
I almost wish that this had ended up being a story in which Jacob, so much like his grandfather, is able to rope his dad into believing in the peculiar children and having some weird adventures together with them before Jacob has to set off to save the world. Let him go off with his father’s blessing.
Man, though, you see why so many “special” children have shitty parents or shitty parent-stand-ins. Because otherwise, this shit is family-wrenching. Plus, he’s making out with his grandpa’s girlfriend! In a timeline where his grandpa is still alive (I guess).
Anyway, I thought the first two-thirds of this book were really well-done. Once it was obvious they were setting it up not for a conclusion, but for a sequel, it started to suck. It would have been better off to just make this a stand-alone book and then, if people liked it, which I believe they would have just based on the first 2/3, keep this one “family angst plus monsters” and let the next one by “Action adventure plus monsters” on its own.
But I’ve got no interest in reading any more about these characters both because the peculiar children aren’t really fleshed out and because the main character didn’t really click for me.