Thursday, February 9, 2012

Palace Beautiful by Sarah Deford Williams

Rating: ***
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Pages: 240
When Sadie and her sister Zuzu move into an old Victorian house, they make several discoveries. First is their neighbor Kristin Anne Smith, a girl Sadie's age who insists on being called Belladonna Desolation. Next they find a secret room in their attic with Palace Beautiful scrawled above the doorway. Inside the palace are an heirloom necklace, an old family photograph, and the diary of a girl named Helen who lived-and maybe died-during the 1918 flu epidemic. The three girls are drawn by Helen's journal, especially when her lives start to parallel their own. Did Helen survive the influenza, or (Bella's theory) is she haunting them as a ghost?
Bella is by far the most interesting character. She wears ankle-length black dresses on a daily basis, gives Sadie a chandelier crystal after knowing her for about thirty seconds, and then asks Sadie if she thinks she's "bold and mysterious". This causes conflict with her Martha Stewart wannabe mother, who grounds Bella for a week because she's worried about what the neighbors will think.
Sadie, a budding artist, also has a unique way of seeing the world. There's no plain white or pink in her mind. A building is old world white, a bowl is nail poish pink. Each chapter heading names a color that appears in the following pages. Sadie categorizes people based on the story they heard about the origin of the universe immediately after being born, which I found weird and slightly annoying. Great dog people are shy and filled with sorrow, like herself. Cabbage patch people are stubborn, like Zuzu. Red bird people, such as Bella, fill the gaps in other's lives.
Aside from Helen's journal entries, the story is set in the 1980's, though you wouldn't know it except for a few references to celebrities, the time gap between Helen's life and theirs, and one scene where Sadie and Bella listen to records. Ah, quaintness.

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