Co-review: Polly Horvath’s newest (and upcoming) novel, The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane

h1 June 27th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane
by Polly Horvath
(cover art by John Hendrix)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux –
Books for Young Readers

Set for a July ’07 release
(review copies)

Synopsis (straight from Horvath’s site, as we don’t want to slip and reveal plot spoilers for those wanting to read it): “When an accident leaves teenage cousins Meline and Jocelyn parentless, they come to live with their unknown and eccentric Uncle Marten on his private island. They soon discover that the island has a history as tragic as their own: it was once an air force training camp, led by a mad commander whose crazed plan to train pilots to fly airplanes without instruments sent eleven pilots to their deaths. Jocelyn, Meline, and Uncle Marten are soon joined on this island of wrecked planes and wrecked men by an elderly Austrian housekeeper {Mrs. Mendelbaum}, a very mysterious butler {Humdinger}, a cat, and a dog. But to Jocelyn and Meline, being in a strange new place around strange new people only underscores the fact that the world they once knew has ended.”

Jules: So, yeah, we just read an advanced proof of Polly Horvath’s newest novel, The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane. We thought it was a great premise and had some strong moments, yet we both found it to be somewhat unsatisfying. We weren’t sure if we were even going to review it here at 7-Imp, but 1). we both adore Horvath’s writing (Everything on a Waffle, The Canning Season, The Trolls, The Pepins and Their Problems — oh, the list of great books goes on and on); 2). the novel had its moments; and 3). as Eisha said, “Horvath can take it.” I mean, come on. She’s the Polly Horvath, well-known, well-loved, well-respected. Not to mention her National Book Award. She could squish us with her little ‘ol (and very talented) literary pinky.

Eisha, would you like to begin with some analysis here? I guess I’ll say quickly that I thought it started out so promisingly — I was laughing out loud at the dark humor (just one element of what has become Horvath’s signature style, I suppose, including orphaned children, key characters in this one) and the flat-out weird characters (mainly Marten Knockers and his delightful misanthropy), and the novel was going somewhere really interesting. It has that slightly macabre, rather grim humor that I enjoy, and Horvath really knows how to get you in the mind of a character and, as I’ve said before, make the mundane seem extraordinary. But then the momentum hit a lull for me, as the reader, about one-third of the way into the book (or perhaps even sooner). I kept waiting for a character to undergo some sort of epiphany or something remotely similar to a transition of any kind to propel the narrative forward, but even in the end, I found them all rather static. I did get a sense of exactly whose novel this is — that one character for whom some sort of growth occurred in the end — but even that felt very forced and rushed at the novel’s close. Eisha, I’m getting ahead of myself, I suppose, and jumping to the end. What did you think?

eisha: Well, pretty much what you said. I also liked the premise: a handful of strangers brought together by tragic circumstance on an island with a dark past – it’s a delicious set-up, right? And it starts off in kind of a zippy way, with Meline being whisked off to her new future with barely any time to register what has happened to her parents. I also liked the character Marten – his non sequiturs made for much-needed comic relief. But I agree – the novel stalled in the same place for a long, long time, and the end felt like all of a sudden Horvath realized she needed to wrap things up, so she threw in a bunch of exposition about stuff I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be questioning. I couldn’t figure out why we needed that whole side plot about Sophie and Humdinger. And what exactly was the purpose of Mrs. Mendelbaum’s character, anyway? I guess to show another facet of suffering and loss, which seems to be the major theme of the novel, but mostly she seemed to be there either as an uncomfortable sort of comic relief or as an object of pathos. Plot-wise she dropped out of the story as soon as she’d gotten Jocelyn hooked on robo. So it seemed weird that the ending focused so much on her.

I hate to sound like I’m trashing it. I think I was just so disappointed because I wanted – and fully expected – to like it, based on the premise and on past experience with Horvath’s writing. And there were some moments that really shone, and made me wistful for what this novel could have been. Like this passage, when Jocelyn has awakened from a nightmare about the brutal attack that took her parents’ lives:

A cold sweat dripped down under my arms beneath my loose nightgown and my eyes slowly adjusted to the familiar furniture of the bedroom. Meline didn’t seem to notice the state I was in, but I was used to this. No one else here had seen the fires or the bodies or the cast-off limbs. There were others there when it happened who were whisked off as quickly as I was, but even when I returned to identify bodies, I spoke to no one else who had been there that night. And then I was carried away as quickly as possible to safety as if geography could put distance between me and what happened. As if I didn’t live there now, every day. Your mind could be a country, I found out, and those around you made foreigners by an unshared memory.

See? Isn’t that powerful? I think this is the main thing Horvath was trying to show with this novel – the different ways people respond to grief, and how keeping oneself isolated isn’t helpful, people need to reach out to each other to be able to forge new bonds and grow out of the grief, etc. And it could have been successful, if there’d been a more gradual change throughout the story – well, actually, if there’d been more story, period, beyond hunting for airplane parts and decorating for Christmas.

What do you think, Jules? Could this story have been saved? Did you find any redeeming elements that left you wanting more?

Jules: You mentioned the decorating for Christmas. I found Marten’s holiday hubbub altogether implausible. I tried and tried to accept it and convince myself that he would do that, but he was so obscenely and delightfully misanthropic that it never worked for me.

And, yes, you really, really nailed the overriding reasons the novel didn’t work for me either. Not sure where to go from here, because that’s pretty much it: the information at the end that seemed rushed and forced (and that we weren’t aware we were supposed to be questioning, as you put it); Sophie and Humdinger (and I’ll add the doctor character in the end, though I guess her character’s main purpose was to enlighten us in the ways of Humdinger); the discomfort over Mrs. Mendelbaum being comic relief, not to mention I needed way more back story on what exactly happened to those she loved; and the need for more gradual transitions throughout the novel — in the way of both character and plot.

The excerpt you chose is excellent, I agree. And, yes, I think Horvath was trying to say: We each experience grief in our own ways. She showed us the wildly different ways that Jocelyn and Meline, for one (or, uh, two) grieve, but then it went no where for me. No resolution for anyone except for a mild one for Meline. And I felt like I was supposed to be moved on the final page, but the fact that the ending felt so forced left me rather bummed out instead.

That’s a long way of answering your second question: The narrative could have been saved — for me — with a plot driven by more character growth. And that seems to be your major point as well, no? But amen to the promising premise, and the novel was infused with moments of loveliness. No one does eccentricity better than Horvath, and I really enjoyed some of the dialogue — snappy, indeed, in spots. But also sometimes poignant and very funny (the novel’s opening really had me laughing out loud in spots, what with our introduction to Marten Knockers. He’s quite a memorable character).

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. Besides, I feel like I’m being redundant now, Eisha, as I really agree with what you said. Any more you feel compelled to add? I always love a new Horvath title, and this doesn’t change my feelings on that, fo sho (you know I’m tired when I lapse into urban slang). Any final thoughts?

eisha: Nah, I’m witchu. Except I think Jocelyn had a bit of character-growth at the end as well, when she broke down in front of Meline. But again, it was a long road to get there, and while there were some good moments along the way, the destination didn’t seem to fit the journey.

But you know, every great author has books that are not quite as awesome as the others. Like you, I look forward to the next novel from the talented Ms. Horvath.

{One final note from us both: We’d love to hear thoughts from others who have perhaps read an advanced copy or those who will read it when it comes out, especially if anyone loves it and wants to debate with us (respectful and lively debate always being a fun and good thing in our book). If you love it and think we’re way off, please tell us why} . . .

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7 comments to “Co-review: Polly Horvath’s newest (and upcoming) novel, The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane

  1. I love it when you guys tag-team. Now off to inject WAY MORE Character Growth into my sh***y first draft! (As Anne Lamott puts it so well.)


  2. Great analysis! I agree with pretty much everything you two said. I had high hopes for the book, and there were things I liked about it… but ultimately, it was disappointing….


  3. Hey, everyone! Mindy reviewed the very same book on the very same day! That’s like, book blog kismet!

    Sara, we didn’t mean to scare anybody. But hey, more character growth can’t hurt. It’s only the shitty first draft, anyway. ;)


  4. Thanks y’all. It looks interesting and I do love me some Polly Horvath. And I second the dialogue reviews. One question: why “corps” and not “corpse”? Is that on purpose?


  5. Bryn, yes, it’s on purpose. There is a “corps” involved, a legend involving the island on which Marten Knockers lives. But I don’t wanna give away any spoilers (actually, it’s mentioned in the synopsis up top).


  6. [...] I do still read novels, too. Anyway, it’s wonderful, and I love Horvath’s writing (er, 99.9% of the time). My One Hundred Adventures, published by Schwartz & Wade this September (and which, [...]


  7. [...] Doesn’t seeing young Lincoln up there, being all heroic and brave and stuff, make you feel a little patriotic? Doesn’t it fit in nicely with this week’s inauguration awesomeness? We thought so too. He also did the cover for Polly Horvath’s Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane, which we co-reviewed way back in 2007. [...]


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