When Sophie FitzOsborne turns sixteen, her brother Toby sends her a journal in which she can record her thoughts and feelings. Sophie recounts the history of Montmaray, an imaginary island kingdom off the coast of France, with the dry, sophisticated humor that only a young princess in 1936 could possess.
Daily life of a forgotten royal family in a decaying castle presents many challenges. Although Sophie’s uncle (King John) is the reigning monarch, Toby is the actual heir to the throne of Montmaray. Since the tragic death of their parents, Toby, Sophie, and their younger sister Henrietta (Henry) have lived with King John, his daughter Victoria (seventeen) and a small handful of subjects brave enough to remain on this forbidding island they fondly call home. In spite of never having had any religious upbringing, Sophie finds herself praying quite often, for as she writes in her journal, “Are any of us unbelievers at moments of despair?” And despair there is on Montmaray. Victoria, the intellectual and highly practical leader of their small household does her best to maintain the family estate on a non-existent income. Life becomes truly complicated, however, when Nazi invaders arrive on the island, upsetting King John’s delicate psychological balance.
Sophie is a refreshingly normal teenage girl, who likes clothes and dancing and hopes to fall in love and marry some day. She possesses a healthy sense of modesty and propriety which is properly scandalized by Victoria’s cavalier attitude towards religion, sexuality and marriage. Ironically, as independent as Victoria may appear, she defers to her younger cousin’s sense of decorum. Although Sophie has led a rather sheltered life, she is the first in the household to realize that Toby and the ambitious son of the family maid (Simon) are romantically involved. Sophie’s reaction is one of disgust and disappointment, for she has spent most of her life nursing a crush on Simon. How ironic that she and her brother should both be attracted to the same man, who turns out to be their illegitimate cousin!
Yes, scandal abounds on the island of Montmaray, but this reviewer is not quite ready to throw the baby out with the bath water. “A Brief History” is a true “young adult” book. It is written at an adult reading level about adolescents. Sophie is a real heroine who has great compassion, even for her adversaries. Realizing that adulthood is rapidly approaching, she struggles to control her imagination and subdue her teenage emotions. These efforts enable her to rise to the occasion when crisis hits. She consistently reacts appropriately to the moral quandaries that present themselves and learns much about human nature in the process: Veronica’s bravado is a cover for insecurity; Toby is a follower, not a leader; Simon is using his relationship with Toby to gain power and influence. For mature readers, this novel could be an engaging and suspenseful diversion from the literature required for school.
Jennifer Minicus lives in Ridgewood, NJ. Her love for the formation of young people inspired her interest in children’s literature.