TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Maureen Johnson's insanely delightful "13 Little Blue Envelopes" is one of my favorite teen books EVAH. And, believe me, I've read a lot of teen books. So I was beyond stoked to have the opportunity to read an e-galley of its sequel, "The Last Little Blue Envelope," courtesy of the good folks at HarperTeen and Net Galley.
I feared "The Last Little Blue Envelope" might suffer in comparison to the wholly original premise of the first book. In "13 …," high school (Jersey!) girl Ginny follows her deceased, super eccentric aunt's clue-laden letters on a solo tour throughout Europe. "13 …" is a magical novel about discovering yourself, growing up, and creating your own identity while experiencing the wonders of European art and culture. Plus, it's a mystery — where do the clues lead?! — and a love story and a travelogue and … well, if you haven't read it, please stop what you're doing right now and go seek it out. I will wait. 😉
I was saying … ? Right, the sequel. It is difficult to follow up such a clever and brilliantly executed concept. And, yes, "The Last …" doesn't quite reach the incandescent heights of its predecessor. But that's cool. It's still a lovely, highly readable novel with a winning combination of funny, sweet, sarcastic, and touching moments. So while it didn't move me in quite the same way as "13 …," I'd still recommend it without hesitation. And I still plowed eagerly through it. And I'm still thinking about reading it again!
I hesitate to give away too much of the plot, because — and I'm thinking particularly of my difficulty in reviewing Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" — part of the interest here is in seeing how Ginny ends up back in Europe again following Aunt Peg's cryptic, art-related clues. I will say that this journey is more personal for Ginny and has a deeper sense of finality to it.
Here's what else I can safely reveal: Ginny; a mysterious loner named Oliver; our old pal, wacky theater boy Keith; and a charming, posh Londoner named Ellis traipse through Paris, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland puzzling out the details in Aunt Peg's final, long missing letter. Some of the adventures are hilarious. The gang's Paris caper is an absolute hoot, barely edging out their night in a Belgian inn populated by a truly odd caretaker and his dozens of affectionate cats. I laughed — out loud! — several times. Yet, some parts of the trip are certainly more bittersweet and emotional, including one pivotal scene where Ginny is alone in the Irish dusk with her memories of Aunt Peg. The richness of that scene and its aftermath are stunning. As in her prior novels, Maureen is masterful at conveying a full range of emotion — everything from lighthearted screwball whimsy to "lump in your throat" pangs — and smoothly managing those shifts in tone without unsettling the reader.
I also really enjoyed how much more mature — sometimes in small, subtle ways — Ginny has become. It's great to see a beloved character evolve and grow while still retaining her core essence. It's Ginny, version 2.0. Ginny's quiet relationship with her "uncle" Richard, in which so many important ideas are conveyed through soft gestures and unspoken sentiment, is a fine example. Her changing relationship with former / sorta / maybe boyfriend Keith, whose clownish antics frustrate her one minute while his tender warmth draws her further in the next, also felt real. Any first love — let alone a transcontinental one! — can be a fragile, conflicted thing, making Ginny's love / hate struggles with Keith resonate. A newly perceptive Ginny can also detect the hidden depth, complexity, and secret compassion in our new teen, the elusive outsider Oliver, keeping us interested in what could otherwise be a potentially loathsome character.
So, yes, GO READ IT!! when "The Last …" is released by HarperTeen in April. Although it falls a bit short of the original, there's still so much to adore here, putting this novel miles ahead of much of current YA literature. It's real. It's heartfelt. It's funny. It's entertaining. It's touching. Really, what more can I ask for!? FYI, aside from a drinking scene, there is very little here to offend even the most sensitive reader. "The Last …" is a perfectly appropriate novel for older middle schoolers. Even better? It's a pretty great novel for them, too. Happy reading!