Sometimes you need ice cream. One-third of the way through The Willoughbys, I was feeling disappointed. There was no meat. By the end, however, things were coming together, and I was enjoying the story as it was meant to be enjoyed—as an ice cream sundae.
I am not a Lemony Snicket fan, and the story at first seemed to emulate his aimless style. Parents disappear, nanny appears, pointless episodes ensue. But as Lowry’s story progressed, the episodes took shape and twined into a fairly coherent plot with a definite conclusion, something no Snicket book ever pretended to possess.
Timothy, twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and little Jane are rather old-fashioned children, and their parents are less than charming. In fact, on the same day the children feel the urge to become old-fashioned orphans, their parents formulate a plan to make them so.
There are some funny lines:
An American boy whose mother proudly believes he can speak German: “Itz that better, Mutti?” Neits und schtright?” “You know I don’t speak German, dear,” she replied.
When that same boy comes back from Switzerland, wearing traditional Swiss garb, Tim murmurs, “It’s Peter the goat-herd, right out of Heidi! We can teach him to read and write, and then we’ll all smile and hug and say religious things!”
While most of the literary references are spelled out—a delicious, “Don’t be such an Oliver” is half-spoiled by an explanation of Oliver Twist—I noticed one reference that Lowry dropped with only a sly smile: “Her name is Ruth.” Jane pouted. “Why?” she asked. “Because,” Tim said with a sly smile, “we are the ruthless Willoughbys.” Fifty points if you know what book that quote is from.
All in all, The Willoughbys is a nice, old-fashioned alternative for kids who enjoy the light humor of a Lemony Snicket, without the utter pointlessness of his plots.