Review of The Last Little Blue Envelope
Maureen Johnson is at it again! In this sequel to 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone, a few months older and more sophisticated, is preparing to apply to colleges. Her essay asks her to describe a defining experience in her life, and all she can think of is when her deceased aunt sent her on a journey through Europe, guided by the letters in thirteen little blue envelopes. But the problem is the ending to that story- the last envelope, the one with the final answer, was stolen. What kind of a conclusion is that to a college essay? But it seems that her journey is not quite over. Ginny receives an e-mail from a stranger, a boy named Oliver who bought her stolen bag while backpacking and discovered the letters inside. He wants to meet with her.
And so Ginny finds herself back in London, staying with her uncle and elated for another chance to see her “definitely something” possibly-boyfriend, the actor-playwright Keith. But things are not as they seem. Keith hasn’t waited around for Ginny- he has a beautiful new girlfriend- and Oliver doesn’t just want to return the letters, he wants half of the valuable art deal that the letter leads to. Within three days, Ginny, Oliver, Keith, and Keith’s girlfriend Ellis are squeezed into Keith’s car, heading for France and another adventure- or several.
Johnson, being a well-traveled person herself (she lives in England for about half the year), is the perfect person to write a European travel novel. She’s able to capture the wide-eyed tourist as well as cover ground that the more culturally well-rounded characters bring with them. As it happens, every major character is both of these at one time or another in the story, creating an interesting switch in dynamic as the group travels from France to Belgium back to London to Dublin. Johnson is also able to make her characters dynamic enough that, though many of the scenes take place inside a tiny car, said scenes are never boring.
As usual, this author uses her skills of comedy mixed with drama to take the reader on an emotional journey. Keith may be taken now, but Ginny still has strong feelings for him, and the reader wants him to kiss her as much as she does. Even without the romantic tension, the two of them have a great comedic dynamic. And then there’s the scene where Ginny takes the final letter to her aunt’s final resting place, does a rubbing of a gravestone (not her aunt’s), and calls her uncle while still atop the hill. It’s not overly sentimental, just sentimental enough to make you see that while Ginny loves her aunt, she’s still hurt that she didn’t know about her aunt’s illness until after it had taken her aunt’s life.
Possibly my favorite part of the novel are Ginny’s musings about the definition of the word “home.” ‘Home,’ she thinks while on her final tube ride in London. ‘It was a nice thought. She had missed her parents, her friends… but the word didn’t have quite the same meaning anymore. England was home, too. So much of her was here.’ And as her train nears the station: ‘[Ginny] wasn’t going to tell them the truth, that she wanted someone to block her path. SHe wanted this train to break down, for her flight to be cancelled, for immigration to tell her that she wasn’t allowed to go. She wanted London itself to rise up and refuse to let her pass out of its boundaries.’ I read this book when I myself was nearing my own lengthy stay in London, and I wept when I read that passage. Johnson’s passion for her adopted country comes through in Ginny’s voice, and it’s a beautiful thing.
My one problem with the novel is the chemistry between Ginny and Oliver in that there… wasn’t any. Actually, I take that back. There was chemistry, but not the romantic hate-into-love chemistry Johnson seemed to be aiming for and that everyone but me seemed to see. While other fans of the book swoon over the pairing, I only knew that Ginny liked Oliver because she willingly made out with him twice and claimed to feel passion. And while Johnson is a great writer of many things, including heart-fluttering kisses, every other Ginny-Oliver moment contained maybe-friendship, but never romantic feelings, at least from my point of view. Because I didn’t feel that they had romantic chemistry, the kisses felt out of place. In fact, in this second reading, I was actually looking for the reasons why Ginny was kissing Oliver. The first time: okay, she’d had a little too much champagne, and it was New Year’s Eve and they were both single and surrounded by couples sucking on each other’s faces, including the boy she loves and his beautiful, too-friendly-to-hate girlfriend. I, too, might feel the pressure to grab the only other single guy and join in the party. But the second time, when they’re both completely sober and Oliver continues to be stand-offish (and not in a cute oh-he’s-so-shy way) and they have yet another chemistry-less conversation… I was a little confused as to what encouraged Ginny to passionately kiss him in the middle of a train station. Oliver just doesn’t seem to like her very much, nor she him, and that made those otherwise well-written kisses a little unexciting.
This book is one I would recommend to anyone, but particularly anyone who loves to travel, who enjoys having their emotions toyed with a little bit, and of course, anyone who’s already a fan of MJ (and seriously, if you read this blog and you’re not yet, what is wrong with you?!)
Today’s note read: Sunday, December 12: FINISH ESSAY!!!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS TIME FINISH THE ESSAY!!!!! […] She pulled it off the wall and tossed it into the trash. Shut up, note. She didn’t take orders from anything that had a glue strip.
“Those are the giant snowmen of Carnaby Street,” her uncle Richard explained. “Festive and disturbing, just the way we like it here. Don’t look them in the eye.”
Keith looked up partway, avoiding her face, instead tracing the outline of her new haircut. “Your hair. You changed it. You look like a news presenter.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Clearly, you don’t know about my childhood obsession with the women who did the weather. My heart still flutters when I hear the word ‘precipitation.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without braids. I thought your hair just grew that way.”
“I know [Romeo & Juliet] is one of your favorites,” she said.
“Well, who doesn’t like a romantic suicide pact?”
“Only bad people.”
Poor Richard. He didn’t deserve this. Every time Ginny walked in his door she was on her way somewhere else. Then again, he had let Aunt Peg live in his house and married her, so he clearly had a thing for flaky American types who liked to sneak off in the dead of night.
She didn’t want [Oliver] to have good qualities. Horrible people should be horrible all the time. That should be the law.
“Cheer up,” [Keith] said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “It’s me you’re with. Would I ever lead you to do something stupid? Best not to answer that. Just follow me down this dark path over here.”
“See those people?” Keith said, leaning into Ginny and pointing at the girl in the gold tights and her friends. “They know where to go. We will follow them, and all will be well. Look how shiny they are.”
“I have a plan,” Ellis said, as [Keith] half-carried her out. “We’ll get on the train, and I’ll ride in the toilet.”
“It’s like dating royalty,” Keith said.
She watched [Oliver] from the window as he left. He never turned back, just made his way down the street, tossing his lighter in his palm. Like nothing had happened at all. She felt a strangely familiar pang in her heart, but she couldn’t quite place it and didn’t feel like trying.