When I receive the advance reader's copy of Brian Selznick's The Marvels, I think, That's a pretty cover. Then I think, That looks really heavy. More than 600 pages of thick-stock paper a hefty book makes, but when you're telling a story within a story, one through illustrations and one through prose, you need a lot of sturdy real estate.
The illustrated portion (approximately the first 400 pages and the final several spreads) spans from 1766 to a contemporary timeline. It tells the story of five generations of the eponymous Marvels, an acting dynasty of the revered and troubled Barrymore ilk. Flanked by the Marvels’ pictorial saga is the written story, set in 1990, of teenager Joseph Jervis, a literary aficionado who runs away from absent socialite parents to crash with an eccentric, estranged uncle in London. As with Selznick’s earlier books, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, which share the same prose-and-picture format, The Marvels merges worlds, themes, characters, and historical chronologies.
"I’ve always loved studying history and finding out stories about the past and thinking about how the past affects us now," says Selznick. "For a grown-up, thinking about one’s childhood is a kind of excavation of the past….The things that I loved as a child—movies, magic, museums, collecting objects, and curating my space—are still the things that most interest me. Those are the elements that call to me when I’m making a story."
When Joseph arrives at his uncle's home at 18 Folgate St. in London, the townhouse has a distinctly other-era feel to it. Candelabras, oil painting portraits, and crystal tabletops all look like “someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut into the fabric of the street, pulling it back to reveal a hidden 19th-century world.” Joseph gradually unearths evidence of the Marvel family within the home, convinced that he is a descendant. He becomes more attached to the authentic surroundings his uncle maintains with obsessive precision.
Just as he forges links to the past, Selznick links his characters to create a beautiful, poignant mystery. He jots down disconnected ideas, figuring out pieces and characters along the way. "I’m very plot-oriented when I’m making a story," Selznick continues. “What I’m mostly thinking about is how point A turns into point B turns into point C and how a character might connect those points. I’m not usually thinking about themes or larger ideas.” Even so, there are recurring themes in his work, like orphans, fire, theaters, and secret spaces. "These things keep returning to me, and I could fight them or I could follow them. And I prefer to follow them."
Theaters, fires, and secret spaces are all here in Marvels. But if there is one overarching theme to the book, it’s family—blissful, distant, misunderstood, puzzling, brilliant, and baffling family. Joseph navigates what a family is; the resulting revelations of pasts, presents, and futures are heartbreaking but ultimately heartwarming. When it becomes clear that the caretaking and curating of 18 Folgate is Joseph’s uncle’s homage to his beloved partner lost to AIDS, defenses fall and familial bonds strengthen.
The actual house at 18 Folgate St. on which Selznick’s fictional home is based was the brainchild of 20th-century artist Dennis Severs, who exactingly created a tableau of 18th-century life at 18 Folgate. When he passed away in 1999, Severs gave the reins of the now iconic house (which tourists can visit) to David Milne, who still maintains it. "I was so nervous giving David Milne a copy of the book because it’s so closely linked to his life," says Selznick. He asked Milne for permission to depict anything related to him in any shape or fashion and also wanted to make sure he could use the house’s address. Milne agreed; it’s what Severs would have wanted. Selznick has linked not only the characters and chronologies in Marvels, he has interwoven his literary setting with the significance of a real-life cultural landmark. “It makes me very proud to see that David feels like my book is serving a purpose in…David’s own life, which is honoring Dennis and Dennis’ work.”Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on his own picture book and teen novel.