A charming, deeply imaginative debut novel about a young girl who is immortalized in her father’s illustrated books containing clues to their family secrets.
Romilly Kemp and her eccentric father have happy but sheltered lives in a ramshackle mansion in the English countryside. To help make ends meet, he creates an illustrated book with Romilly—striking girl with red hair and a mole on her cheek—as the heroine with her cat, Monty. The book becomes an instant success and their estate is overrun with tourists and adventure seekers after rumors spread that hidden within its pages is an elaborate treasure hunt.
As Romilly gets older and her father writes more books, he starts disappearing within himself. She returns to his illustrations, looking for a way to connect with her ailing father, and finds a series of clues he’s left just for her. But this treasure hunt doesn’t lead her to gold or precious stones, but something worth far more—a shocking secret that is crucial to understanding her family.
Written with tremendous heart and charisma, The Book of Hidden Wonders is an unforgettable story about growing up, facing mortality and discovering the hidden wonders that make us who we are.
There is so much to love about The Book of Hidden Wonders that I am not sure where to start. Phenomenally-written by author Polly Crosby, it is a hard book to put down once you pick it up. The story is so full of intrigue and mystery, and I always needed to find out what happened next. And, for me, that is the biggest compliment I can give.
I started this review talking about how this is narrative-cenetered book, but as I got more into the review I realize it is much more character-driven than I originally thought. The main storyline is about a book Romilly’s father writes where she is the main character. She becomes instantly famous, and people begin to show up at their house hunting for treasure to which they believe the book as provided clues. This becomes a huge invasion into Romilly’s life, as the treasure hunters vie to get pictures with her and speculate about her life. The other pieces of this story are not necessarily separate storylines as much as they are branches off the main. Romilly is a young girl (8 when the book begins, I believe), and this is as much of a coming-of-age book as anything else.
Romilly’s life is far from perfect, and she struggles maintaining relationships with the people in her life. Romilly and her father live alone in the countryside, and, while they are close, their relationship becomes strained at times. He is a painter and trying to support her with his books, while at the same time becoming deeply ensconced in his work, often leaving Romilly to fend for herself. Romilly’s mom does not live with them, though she does make a few appearances in the book. These reunions are always awkward and fraught with disaster. Romilly’s grandmother also makes an attempt to be a part of her life, as well, and at times takes on a motherly-type of role in her life; though, she does not live near them and much of their correspondence is via letter. Romilly also befriends a local girl by the name of Stacy, who is also quite mysterious. She never allows Romilly to come to her house, and disappears for weeks or even months at a time, leaving Romilly to wonder where she goes. The on-again, off-again nature of this relationship toys with Romilly’s emotions (and, I will admit, mine, too!), as Stacy is the only girl her age in the area with whom she can be friends (especially when her father begins to homeschool her after his books become popular).
All of this to say the characters and their respective relationships to Romilly really pull this story along from beginning to end. Each interaction provides Romilly with a different perspective on life. They all contribute to her growth and change over the course of the story – for better and for worse. These contributions are made through the narrative of the story as Romilly has different experiences with each one, and she attempts to find herself and figure out her place in the world. The love-hate connections with each of the people in her life add to the already-tense nature of the book.
That is really what makes this book so appealing. The Book of Hidden Wonders is absolutely brimming with tension. It is a story of love and loss, of loyalty and betrayal, of a young girl trying to navigate the waters of life while not always knowing who she can look to and often feeling let down. And all of this over the backdrop of the popularity of the books and the ensuing treasure hunt taking place that just adds to the overall strain on the story. That anxiety-inducing tautness of the string constantly being wound and tightened until you are afraid it is going to snap – that is the essence of this book. No worries there, either, as it does snap, and when it does everything comes crashing down hard. I am not a crier, but I shed tears while reading this book no less than three times (THREE TIMES!), and I cannot remember the last book that did that to me. So, congratulations, Polly Crosby. There is a feather for your cap.
The Book of Hidden Wonders was a joy to read. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking simultaneously, an emotional roller coaster that left me a little broken at the end. Who am I kidding – it left me much more than a little broken. So much so that I am still trying to pick up the emotional pieces and put myself back together. Experiences like this are literally why we read, and so I recommend this book to absolutely anyone and everyone. Just make sure you come with open mind and open heart.