Author: Claire Legrand
Genre: Horror, Speculative Fiction, Middle Grade
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: August 2012
Hardcover: 352 pages
At the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, you will definitely learn your lesson. A dark, timeless, and heartfelt novel for fans of Coraline and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Victoria hates nonsense. There is no need for it when your life is perfect. The only smudge on her pristine life is her best friend Lawrence. He is a disaster—lazy and dreamy, shirt always untucked, obsessed with his silly piano. Victoria often wonders why she ever bothered being his friend. (Lawrence does too.)
But then Lawrence goes missing. And he’s not the only one. Victoria soon discovers that The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is not what it appears to be. Kids go in but come out…different. Or they don’t’ come out at all.
If anyone can sort this out, it’s Victoria—even if it means getting a little messy.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: ARC from the author
Why did we read this book: Both of us have been dying to read this book for months now – a middle grade horror novel about a terrifying Home for Boys and Girls? How could we resist? (Plus, after having met the wonderful Claire Legrand – who is delightful in person – we could not wait to read her debut novel.)
Thea: Awe. Horror. Utter, depraved delight. All of these are emotions I experienced while reading The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, the debut novel from Claire Legrand. Cavendish has a little bit of everything – a dash of Matilda, a heaping dose of Coraline, a touch of Tim Burton, topped off with a whole lotta original awesomeness, too, naturally. This is one fantastic book, and I loved it from cover to cover.
Ana: When I finished reading The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls I decided I needed to tell my colleagues all about it. It was just after lunch break and I was decidedly giddy about it. This is how I presented it: a fabulous horror book for children featuring cockroaches, cannibalism, a perfect little girl who she sets out to save her best friend. As I grew more and more enthusiastic about my recounting of the book, I stood up and I might have re-enacted a scene or two of the book – one of them, to the horror of those around me, involved an army of roaches. This is going to be our book club read for Halloween. Long story short: I loved this so much, I subjected myself to ridicule by re-enacting a scene with cockroaches.
On the Plot:
Thea: Victoria Wright is twelve years old and the top of her class at Impetus Academy. The pride of her stylish mother and well-connected father, Victoria makes sure that everything in her life is orderly and perfect, from her gleaming curls to her impeccable grades. In fact, the only thing that is not just so for Victoria is her one and only friend Lawrence Prewitt. Lawrence, also twelve years old, is a quiet boy with gray hairs that make him look a bit like a skunk, who doesn’t care about his grades or what others think of him. What Lawrence cares about is music – he’s a prodigy on the piano, but not much good at anything else. One day, after witnessing some particularly rude and disorderly taunting of Lawrence, Victoria decides to take him on as her own special project and befriends the strange musical boy (even when he resists and rejects her). Victoria and Lawrence grow to be close friends, until the day that Lawrence disappears.
Although the Prewitts insist that Lawrence is simply off visiting his ill Grandmother, Victoria notices that something is wrong – and this wrongness is not just with Lawrence’s parents, but with so many others in the pristine town of Belleville. Peoples’ smiles are garishly tight, their teeth too gleamingly white, and something else scuttles around the dark corners that Victoria can’t quite see.
At the heart of all this wrongness is the orphanage on Nine Silldie Place – The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Children, like Lawrence, are disappearing from Belleville, and no one seems to care – no one but a few quickly silenced adults (like Professor Alban) and Victoria, that is. Victoria is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, to find her friend, and to restore sanity to the world.
From a pure plotting and storytelling perspective, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is a delightfully terrifying, deliciously creepy read – one that effectively plays with familiar tropes and images, like scuttling bugs in dark corners, mystery meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a house with voices and shifting halls, and a terrifying puppetmaster under a sheen of glamour in the form of Mrs. Cavendish at the center of it all. In Claire Legrand’s blog post today, she cites a few MG titles that influenced her work (in particular her heroine Victoria), and the homage she pays to these fabulous books are strewn throughout Cavendish. There’s Roald Dahl’s Matilda – from the terrifying Home’s “hangar” (where children are…hanged), which feels very much like Dahl’s Chokey, to the horrific coaching Mrs. Cavendish gives to a boy who cannot resist eating sweets, which feels very much like Miss Trunchbull’s abusive cake-punishment inflicted on a sweet-toothed student. There’s also glimmers of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline in Cavendish, too – the shimmering facade of the Other Mother in Mrs. Cavendish’s tight, sunny smiles hiding a monster beneath, the oddness of the Other Mother’s realm in the other dimension that the Cavendish Home embodies.
But, most importantly, while some of the elements are familiar and the hat-tips to influential works are unmistakable, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls has no shortage of its very own original magic. At heart, Cavendish tells the story of a prickly heroine that learns her own worth and the value of friendship – that different and disorderly does not always mean worse. To make this point, Claire Legrand is as gleefully sadistic as her titular Mrs. Cavendish – inflicting all kinds of deranged punishment on her characters, including (but not limited to) physical, emotional, and psychological torture; swarming, stinging beetle-roaches; and stinking food with mysterious chunks of rubbery meat for every meal. Even better – Legrand’s writing is even-handed and never gratuitous or pandering, as she manages to keep the voice consistent with its middle grade heroine, but still make the story appealing (and properly horrific) for older readers alike. The story is brisk, the tension high, and as Victoria learns the true nature of the Cavendish Home and the secret of her perfect town, I was utterly, wholly under Cavendish‘s spell.
Ana: Unfortunately I am not schooled in Horror stories and more to the point, I am most definitely not well-read in children’s Horror stories . This means that even though I do understand some of the references and recognise some of the influences that Thea noted above, to me the sense of the familiar that the book engenders stems from archetypical fears rather than specific works. As such, Cavendish plays really well into those familiar fears: the fear of the dark and of confined spaces; of losing one’s parents; of loneliness and being at the mercy of enemies; of the monsters under the bed (or behind a wall) and of the creepy crawly insects. And then it goes beyond by combining those archetypical fears with the book’s own thematic elements: self-acceptance and the value of friendship and the importance of memory – of remembering people that are gone and the things have gone wrong in the past so that they are not repeated again.
This is a Horror story and it is meant to be horrific. I love that the author does not pander to her audience – although at times I admit found myself clutching my imaginary pearls in extreme horror and going “I can’t believe she went there”. I loved the book because it was a proper horror story and it doesn’t shy away from it. Interestingly, it is hinted that the parents of those children actually would have wanted them to go to the Cavendish Home to become perfect, well-behaved little children. As such, this makes the book all the more impacting because then the Cavendish Home might as well be a mirror to the world outside: a world that strives for a certain type of perfection that is fake and unnatural.
Of course, it also helps that the prose itself is pretty awesome and that the story is developed beautifully as a Quest to save a Best Friend (and in the process of doing so, also save the town).
On the Characters:
Ana: Victoria, the main character is an incredible MG heroine. Assertive, intelligent, self-sufficient. Incredibly self-aware about certain things: about her sense of self-worth and about her integrity, sense of honour and extreme dedication to her own education with a love for knowledge and a desire for victory. But she was also completely oblivious to others: like her potential for cruelty, the sense of superiority that effectively distanced her from the other kids and her real feelings for Lawrence (whom I loved from basically page 1).
I loved that the majority of those characteristics are not presented as negative aspects in themselves – they only become negative when Victoria thinks of herself as superior (and therefore better) to everybody else when they don’t show the same features. Her character arc is great – as per the thematic core of the novel, she learns to accept others for who they are (e.g. completely different from her) without changing her own personality. In fact it is her very own non-nonsense way to look at the world that saves her life.
As for Mrs Cavendish: Mrs Cavendish is that sort of unrepentant, black-and-white villain that is so easy to loathe. She reminded me of Professor Umbridge with her potential for unparalleled cruelty, the kind that entwines both physical and emotional torture.
Thea: Allow me to break out of serious reviewer mode and commence gushing: OH MY GOSH PEOPLE I FREAKING LOVE LOVE LOVE VICTORIA SO MUCH. Just as the author says in her guest post about heroines, Victoria is a prickly, snobbish, perfectionist of a heroine. The mere thought of earning a B is horrific to her, and she goes about her pristine, ordered life with nary a thought for what she might be missing or whom she is hurting in her quest for Utter Victory (Academic or otherwise). And yet, despite her frosty princess qualities, Victoria is an incredibly compelling and likable heroine, because underneath that hardened shell of self-importance, she actually is a loyal, true friend (though she’s oblivious to this fact). Heck, the only reason why she stands a chance against Mrs. Cavendish and her cohorts is because she has such a hard head and a stubborn streak a mile wide.
On the other side of the coin, however, there is Mrs. Cavendish – our villain, who also quests for and demands utter perfection of everyone in the town of Belleville. At different parts of the book, comparisons are drawn between Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish, showing the similarities between the two characters – both Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish demand others conform to their standards and beliefs. And through the horrors inflicted on children and the townspeople by Mrs. Cavendish, Victoria gradually learns that sometimes perfect is not perfect at all. In particular, I love one scene where Mrs. Cavendish forces one of the girls to paint the same bland, pretty picture over and over again, and Victoria reflects on Jacqueline’s art before – how it was shocking and disturbing and made people feel things, in stark contrast to the perfect, soulless pictures Mrs. Cavendish forces Jacqueline to create. Mrs. Cavendish perhaps was once like Victoria, gone down a different, dark path – I love the contrast painted between these two characters, and how Victoria breaks free from Mrs. Cavendish’s cruel grip.
Although, I should mention that what I love most of all about Victoria is the fact that while she does change over the course of the novel, she does not emerge from Cavendish as some benevolent, repentant child. No, she is still prickly, still overacheiving, still hyperorganized to a fault – but she realizes that she wants and needs more than distant approval from her parents and wants their love, just as she knows she yearns for Lawrence’s friendship just as much as he yearns for hers. And that is all kinds of awesome.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is an amazingly fun and creepy read. The author develops its thematic core of self-worth without being preachy and without pandering to readers – this is Horror, yes. But Horror with a Heart.
Thea: I completely, wholeheartedly agree. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is a beautifully written, gleefully horrific novel that is perfect for readers young and old. Starring a truly remarkable protagonist in Victoria (who can go toe-to-toe with the finest heroines in the middle grade canon), and featuring terrifying (but appropriate and never gratuitous) horror in the form of Mrs. Cavendish, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls simply rocks. Easily one of my notable reads of 2012.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
WHEN VICTORIA WRIGHT WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD, she had precisely one friend. In fact, he was the only friend she had ever had. His name was Lawrence Prewitt, and on Tuesday, October 11, of the year Victoria and Lawrence were twelve years old, Lawrence disappeared.
Victoria and Lawrence became friends shortly after Lawrence’s first gray hairs appeared. They were both nine years old and in fourth grade. Thick and shining, Lawrence’s gray hairs sprouted out from between his black, normal hairs and made him look like a skunk. Everyone made fun of Lawrence for this, and really, Victoria couldn’t blame them. Victoria decided that these hairs were a cosmic punishment for Lawrence’s inability to tuck in his shirt properly, use a comb, pay attention in class (he preferred to doodle instead of take notes), and do anything but play his wretched piano. Not that Lawrence was bad at piano; in fact, he was very good. But Victoria had always thought it an incredible waste of time.
After a few weeks of watching Lawrence’s gray hairs sprout thicker and thicker, and hearing everyone’s snickers, Victoria put aside her general dislike of socializing with, well, anyone, and decided that Lawrence would be her personal project. Obviously, the boy needed help, and Victoria prided herself on telling people what to do with themselves. Sacrificing her valuable time to fix Lawrence would be a gift to the community of Belleville. “How charitable of you, Victoria,” people would say, and beam at her and wish their children could be like her.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure to check out our official stop on the Cavendish blog tour!
We host the lovely Claire Legrand as she talks about her favorite Middle Grade heroines – plus a chance to win the book!
Ana:8 – Excellent, and a notable read of 2012
Thea: 8 – Excellent, leaning towards a 9, and absolutely a notable book of the year
Reading Next: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)