Book Reviews

[review] The Key to the Golden Firebird – Maureen Johnson

The funny thing about stop signs is that they’re also start signs.

Mayzie is the brainy middle sister, Brooks is the beautiful but conflicted oldest, and Palmer’s the quirky baby of the family. In spite of their differences, the Gold sisters have always been close.

When their father dies, everything begins to fall apart. Level–headed May is left to fend for herself (and somehow learn to drive), while her two sisters struggle with their own demons. But the girls learn that while there are a lot of rules for the road, there are no rules when it comes to the heart. Together, they discover the key to moving on – and it’s the key to their father’s Pontiac Firebird.

Discovery: This is actually the very first Maureen Johnson book I ever read, which is appropriate because it’s also MJ’s debut novel. I’m writing this review after a reread, because I don’t think I appreciated it enough when I first read it last year.

+     Setting. I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, just like Maureen Johnson and her characters. Reading this book was coming back home for a visit. I liked how May, Palmer and Brooks were set against classic Philly landmarks and smaller neighborhoods. There is a sense of unsettling quiet in the book, which I think native NE Philadelphians can understand. It really is suburbia incarnate. There’s also a scene with May and Pete where they lament being dragged to the Liberty Bell “twelve times” during elementary school. I may love Philly, but even a historic cracked bell loses its appeal after the fourth visit.

+     Metaphors. The events of the novel are seen through the eyes of all three sisters, but it is May who the reader gets to know best. Her emotional development is charted in part by two things: learning how to drive and a camping trip with her mother and sisters. The former is done with the help of Pete Camp, her childhood tormenter. May spends much of the book trying to remain distant from everyone but she begins to lean more and more on Pete. I loved the gradual realization of this and May’s own attempts to deal with something she never expected. Driving is always risky, but a healthy dose of trust in one’s ability can help. May learns to do just that and I do think that she’s a much more complete character at the end of the novel

The camping trip was unexpected, but it was a great way to bring the three girls together. They are preoccupied with their own lives during the first half of the novel and this trip forces them to actually interact with each other. May, Brooks and Palmer all have very distinct personalities. I know that the disjointedness of those personalities might make it difficult for some readers to immerse themselves in the novel, but I thought it was a worthy challenge.

–     Telling, not showing. I think it’s quite obvious that this is a first novel, because in the year since I first read it, I have picked up MJ’s other books and noticed a clear difference. There is a much tighter sense of control in her later work, where Firebird moves tentatively, almost shyly. Character-wise, the novel excels, but the actual movement of the characters can sometimes feel weighed down.

Recommendations: Readers familiar with Maureen Johnson’s other novels may have a harder time getting into this book, but it’s worth the time and effort.

Rating: Very good.

Go check out Maureen Johnson’s website and follow her on Twitter @maureenjohnson. (Though you should be warned that she does tweet a lot. Also, if she likes you, she keeps you in a jar. True fact. I’ve decorated mine with Harry Potter posters.)

Next review: A Lily Among Thorns, Rose Lerner


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