The Mysterious Howling is a re-read for me. I didn’t really care for it in 2010 when I first read it upon its initial publication. So why would I re-read a book I didn’t like in the first place? One of the hosts of a bookish podcast I listen to (Currently Reading–which I HIGHLY recommend) had recently listened to this title on audio with her children and liked it. Since The Mysterious Howling is one of those titles that I wanted to like (but didn’t) I thought perhaps I would give it another try…this time on audio and see if I enjoyed more the second time.
Unfortunately, that did not happen. I still do not care for this book–which is maddening because it does have some wonderful elements and the potential to be a much better story than it is. The setting is Victorian England (mid-19th century). The premise is that Lord Frederick Ashton has ‘found’ three children in the Woods near his home; these children seem to have been raised by wolves, as they have no clothes and do not speak English. Instead of turning the children over to the social authorities, using the adage “finders keepers,” Lord Ashton (and his new wife–the vain and silly Lady Constance) have sought a governess to tend to the children at their home, Ashton Place. Enter our main character, Penelope Lumley, a 15-year-old recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy who becomes the new governess.
The idea that Penelope teaches the children to behave and speak English, including quoting from great literature in a few weeks is, of course, ridiculous–but I would be willing to go along with that for the sake of the story if the context supported it–which it doesn’t. The huge slapstick scene at the Christmas party, although expected, is well-written and fun and is an indication of what the book could have been. Penelope’s kind heart is evident but she acts more like a 30-year-old than a 15-year-old even in her thoughts; although her naivete comes across, her thoughts and motivations are not developmentally that of a teenager (even in the 19th century). The pacing of the story is uneven, moving forward in fits and starts and I had a hard time getting a handle on what the point of the story is: is it about misfits in a particular environment? A creepy, scary story? A coming-of-age for a young girl in Victorian London?
The Mysterious Howling does not really stand on its own as a story. As the first book in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series no truly meaningful action occurs; everything is clearly setting up for what will begin to happen in the forthcoming books of the series. For this reason I found the ending to be extremely frustrating and dissatisfying. Because this one felt so pointless to me I seriously doubt I will ever pick up another in the series. The Mysterious Howling may provide fun for a young reader out there, but I won’t be recommending it. There are too many other books that do misfits/scary/coming-of-age so much better.
If you or young readers you know enjoy the young girls in settings with a Victorian London feel, two titles I have profoundly enjoyed that blend (sometimes dark) humor with crazy escapades are: Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera and The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry.