Book Review: The Exceptional Maggie Chowder
Hey Write Voicers!
I hope everyone is nice and full from their amazing Thanksgiving Meals on Thursday. For my family, Thanksgiving is a time of thankfulness and being grateful for what we have in life: a roof over our heads, the loved ones in our lives, the furbabies who jump on the counter while you're trying to baste a turkey, great books to read and so much more. Because November is all about being thankful, it's the perfect month to write a review on The Exceptional Maggie Chowder by Renee Beauregard Lute.
That said, I would like to point out that this review will be a little shorter than my last few. Between moving, starting a second job, NaNoWriMo, the holidays, and dealing with my long-Covid symptoms (I've been long-hauling for a year now!), it's been a pretty busy month. But, I owe it to myself and Renee to review this book because it's important to share good stories with the world. So, without futher adieu, let's get to it!
What's the novel about?
The Exceptional Maggie Chowder is a book about a twelve-year-old girl who loves forest rangers and comics and wants to go to Forest Ranger Camp. But when her mom's car is totaled and her dad loses his job, money becomes tight, and Forest Ranger Camp is a dream that might not come true. She and her family have to move to a tiny, cramped, two-bedroom apartment and Maggie has to adjust to a new lifestyle that includes sharing a room with her brother and spending time with her "comic-book-hating Grandma Barrel." Luckily, she has her EAGirl comic books to keep her company, her best friend LaTanya, and a family that loves her.
What themes are present in the book?
Like with most stories and novels, this book is about a lot of things; but, what really stood out to me was the following two message: A house does not make a home, the people inside of it do. This is shown in a few ways, including: the juxtaposition between Maggie's and LaTanya's lives, the interactions between the characters, and the literal size of the apartment Maggie moves into.
Juxtaposition Between Maggie's and LaTanya's Lives
Lute does an excellent job of conveying this message by juxtaposing Maggie's life with LaTanya's. For example, Maggie's father loses his job and becomes an actor, but he's at home more often than he was. And, while Maggie's mom had to take on a job at a grocery store, she's still very much present in Maggie's life. Their house is tiny, but it's always full, especially when Maggie's Grandma Barrel moves in. On the other hand, LaTanya's dad was offered his dream job and, though he said he'd be home more often, LaTanya rarely sees him, and LaTanya's mom--who is a model and actress--doesn't pay much attention to LaTanya and her needs. Their house is much bigger, but it's always empty.
Interactions Between Characters
Lute did a great job of showing us (the readers) how close the Chowder family is. From the first chapter you can see that Maggie's parents are attentive and care about what she thinks. You can tell that Maggie takes helping out and caring for her brother seriously, and you can tell that they all genuinely enjoy spending time with each other--even when they're annoyed with each others actions. I could spend all day giving you examples of these moments, but I think this is one of those times where it's better for you to read it for yourself.
The Size of Maggie's Apartment
The description of Maggie's apartment is enough to make the reader feel the cramped space. If you're used to a house where you have your own room and the only shared spaces are a bathroom and spaces like the living room and dining room, it can be hard to transition to a smaller space (I should know since my husband and I just downgraded from a one bedroom 1000-something square foot town home to a one bedroom 800-something square foot apartment--those 200-something feet make a difference).
When Maggie complains about the smell of the dumpster by her bed, and then talks about how, "The table isn't exactly in the kitchen, and it isn't in the living room either. It's kind of in between. Everything except the bedrooms and bathroom are just one big room in the new apartment," I could literally imagine how uncomfortable that space could be if it were shared by people that you didn't like. But later, when it's filled with friends and family, and Maggie describes it as a place where you can hear everything that everyone is saying, the entire vibe of the apartment seems to change. It's kind of difficult to explain, since it's one of those things that you have to feel, but trust me on this: the apartment is a character that's meant to emphasize the theme of the book.
What did you like?
The best things about this book were how relatable the characters were, the depiction of Aaron's autism, and the comic book strips within the book.
I've read a lot of books over time, and not all of them have had relatable characters. In fact, some of them live live's so vastly different from me that I can only imagine what it would be like to be them. Of course, that is one job of a novel--to put yourself in someone else's shoes. But, playing Devil's Advocate, I also love a good old-fashioned story that embodies the life that I've lived or that other's around me have lived. With those stories, representation is powerful (more on that later).
For this book, I was able to connect with my inner twelve-year-old, and that was pretty cool. But, if I'm being honest, it was the parents and Grandma Barrel that I related to most. And, yeah, it's definitely because I'll be pushing thirty next year, but I also just found them really entertaining.
Maggie's father had to put off his dream of being an actor so that he could be a responsible adult that's able to pay his bills is my story. The only difference is that my dream is to be able to write full time. And the scene in the book where Maggie's mom is just so utterly done and fed up with her job at the grocery store reminded me of working as a server. Like, when Maggie's mom was talking about being bone tired, I felt that. And Grandma Barrel talking about having to defer her dreams because she was afraid that she wouldn't be able to have the job security that she needed was just, I don't know, chefs kiss.
Last, though we didn't see much of them, the depiction of LaTanya's family kind of showed me what I don't want to be like with my future kids (you know, when I'm a billionaire writer and have that kind of money). And yeah, I know that the book is about Maggie, her name is in the title after all, but what's a book without amazing side characters, ya know?
I'm not gonna lie, when I was reading the description of this book, I did not realize that we were going to get a type of frame story in the form of a comic strip. I'm a huge nerd, so I love anime, manga, and comics. Using the EAGirl comics to frame Maggie's conceputalization of herself and those around her was a great idea because it shows how she, as a person, is growing.
I want to start this paragraph with the statement that I'm not an expert on autism in the slightest. But, as someone who loves to see representation in novels, I have to say that I was impressed by the amount of detail put into Aaron's character. Aaron's obsession with lists and spellings makes him unique and gives a voice to the spectrum of autism that people rarely talk about. Because, I mean, really, when people discuss autism, it always seems like they discuss those on the low-functioning end of the spectrum as opposed to the high-functioning end. And, that's what autism is, a spectrum. No one part of it is the same, and the scene of Maggie in the waiting room with Aaron, Ava, and the other children waiting to see the specialist shines a light on that. And that's what we love to see in our literature, representation of all sorts.
What, if anything, did you dislike or wish the author would've done differently?
There wasn't anything that I disliked about the book per se. I do wish that we would've gotten better descriptions about what the characters look like. However, I do think that Lute's choice to leave it somewhat ambiguous does allow the reader to picture the characters however they like, and that's also pretty cool. I was also kind of sad that there weren't more chowder and soup based jokes.
How many stars would you give this book and why?
I really liked this book due to the theme and the relatabilty of the characters. However, while I understand why some authors choose to forego the character descriptions, I felt that this book would have been better with at least the most basic of descriptions (height, race/ethnicity, and style of clothing). For these reasons, I would give this book four out of five stars.
Renee Beauregard Lute is the author of The Exceptional Maggie Chowder and The Winicker Wallace series. Her books are available in bookstores and at the library.
For information on what she's up to, and adventures with her characters, you can visit her website.
If you enjoyed this review and want to know more about her, check out this interview.
And, remember to like, subscribe, and comment. Thanks!