Adult readers may find themselves desperately searching the subtext of this book for hidden lessons; children will probably just relish it.
Rather like The Bad Beginning, this curious uncautionary tale lays all its cards on the table right up front. To readers expecting growth in the aptly named child’s character arc, the narrator says, “If this were a Hollywood movie, or a fairy tale, or a run-of-the-mill chapter book, this would undoubtedly be the case. But in the real world such things rarely happen.” All of the elder, equally venal generations of Baddenfields having perished young, 12-year-old Alexander decides to have a life transplant, using the eight extra lives of his cat, Shaddenfrood, as a resource—and over the protests of his faithful servant, Winterbottom (as good as Alexander is bad). Lives installed, he goes on to run through them all at a spectacular rate. (Shaddenfrood, purring appropriately, survives.) Blackall’s characteristically knowing illustrations and dramatic design decisions reinforce Marciano’s gleefully morbid humor and bely the seeming amorality of the tale. The purposeful fading of the text during Alexander’s ninth and last demise encourages readers to grapple with it. Adults will be grasping for an obvious point, an impulse reinforced by references to the myth of Icarus and Frankenstein and digs at the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, but child readers will likely be way ahead of them.
Freely embracing the literary principle that, at bottom, evil is better fun than good, this envelope-pushing bonbon may not have an easily discernible moral, but that’s its strength. (Gothic humor. 10-14)