It either sounds like a great joke or a terrible time: two girls, two eggs, a platoon of nesting dolls, and Baba Yaga. Layer the mixture onto a foundation of literary talent, and there you have it: Gregory Maguire’s latest novel.
Maguire is best known for Wicked, a novel that later turned into the hit (and perhaps better-known) musical. I read Wicked years and years ago and don’t honestly remember much about it – except that it was really, really strange and oddly sad. It’s a book I recommend, but sparingly. Maguire’s Oz is a place that has little to do with Dorothy, flirting with themes of intersexuality and familial dysfunction.
I expected the new book, Egg and Spoon, to give the same treatment to classic Russian fairy tales – spice them up with a touch of discomfort and make it impossible to look away. Instead, Maguire delivers something closer to a YA novel. If the Incredible Journey and The Prince and the Pauper had a love child which grew up reading only Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, it would be this book.
And, somehow, it works.
A plot summary: as a highbrow train passes through small-town, starving Russia, a peasant girl and an aristocrat’s daughter accidentally trade places. Elena hurtles towards the Tsar’s court to be presented to his godson as a potential bride; Cat ventures into the surrounding forest and narrowly escapes the claws of Baba Yaga. Cat holds fast to a beautiful Fabergé egg, and Elena to the egg of a Firebird. Somehow they hold the fate of Russia in their hands; they have to fix the underlying fabric of the nation by believing in its fairy tales.
Maguire made some choices that I disliked – Baba Yaga keeps cracking pop culture references, and the novel is periodically narrated by a morose monk. But his prose also has a way of hitting you right in the sternum – sweet, sharp, and sentimental in all the right places:
“The window by her seat was blotched with spots of rain dried into spearheads of dust. The world beyond – it was just a few fields right now, under the darkening sky. A farmer shrugging at snow to be cleared from a stable door. His hand on his head, scratching his hair. A donkey nearby, tied to a limp old cherry tree in no shape to bloom again. But it had to bloom again. Hold on, dear world, she thought. We’re coming.”