13 Little Blue Envelopes

by Maureen Johnson

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1131

Author: Maureen Johnson (b. 1973)

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First published: 2005

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of plot: The 2000s

Locale: New York City, London, and several European cities

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Principal characters

Virginia “Ginny” Blackstone, a shy seventeen-year-old

Aunt Peg, Ginny's late eccentric aunt

Keith Dobson, a London theater artist

Richard, Aunt Peg's friend

Beppe, a twenty-year-old Italian with whom Ginny has a romantic encounter

Homework Help

Latest answer posted June 5, 2015, 1:39 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Story

The summer she is seventeen, Virginia “Ginny” Blackstone receives an envelope from her aunt Peg with a set of mysterious instructions and a thousand dollars. Ginny is to head to New York City, and then fly to London on a one-way ticket with no extra money or electronic devices. The letter claims that Ginny will be gone for several weeks and that Aunt Peg will take care of everything. Aunt Peg was the free-spirited eccentric of the family. A few months earlier, she had disappeared, traveling across Europe and dying there of cancer at age thirty-five.

Ginny acquires more envelopes from Aunt Peg's former home and flies to London. The second envelope instructs that Ginny must complete the task in every envelope before opening the next, then gives directions to an apartment. There, she meets her aunt's friend Richard, who takes her to Harrods department store. The next morning, Richard helps her complete her first task and access money with Aunt Peg's bank card.

The third envelope tells Ginny to give a large sum of money to an artist of her choice, which leads Ginny to attend Starbucks: The Musical. She buys out the remaining run of the unpopular show and attracts the attention of its star and writer, Keith Dobson. Keith invites her out for a drink, and she helps him pack up the musical to take it to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Luckily, the next envelope also sends her to Edinburgh to meet Mari Adams, a painter who was Aunt Peg's idol. Ginny and Keith bond there.

The next envelopes send Ginny to Rome, where she pays tribute to ancient statues of the vestal virgins and is instructed to ask a Roman boy on a date. The letters then send her to Paris, where she visits the Louvre and is set the task of finding a café Aunt Peg decorated. She quickly e-mails Keith to say hello. The café is filled with collaged pictures of dogs on the wall, and when Ginny returns to her hostel, she finds Keith waiting. They spend an evening in Paris, kissing in a cemetery, before he departs and she heads to Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam, Ginny gets swept up into the vacation of an American family, the Knapps. While they take her along on heavily scheduled sightseeing trips, their friendliness makes it difficult for her to complete her task from Aunt Peg. The Knapps give her a bill for nearly five hundred euros on the last day, meant to cover her expenses during the family trip. Opening the next envelope, she is glad to leave for Copenhagen.

There, she meets an artist friend of Aunt Peg's who takes her out on a boat to watch the “midnight sun” of the region. After Ginny makes some Australian friends and wins a karaoke competition in a packed bar (much to her surprise), the next envelope sends her to Greece.

While swimming on the beach in Corfu, Greece, Ginny has her bag stolen (including the final envelope), and when she heads to an ATM, realizes she is out of money. Richard flies her back to London, and there tells her that he and Aunt Peg had married before she died. She reunites with Keith and tries to process all that has happened before finding a hidden key in Aunt Peg's former home, which Richard identifies as opening a storage box in Harrods. There, she finds Aunt Peg's paintings with instructions, which lead her to an art dealer. The dealer sells the paintings for a large amount of money, giving the proceeds to Ginny. Before she decides what to do next, Ginny tells Keith how she feels about him and sits down to write a letter to her aunt.

Critical Evaluation

A lot happens to Ginny over the course of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but perhaps the biggest change comes through how she views herself. At the start of the novel, Ginny is an insecure and quiet teenager who does not believe she can ever be as interesting as her Aunt Peg. By the end, however, she begins to come into her confidence, realizing that she can also be engaging, unique, and independent.

One of the ways the novel accomplishes this progression is through its epistolary structure. Third-person-narrative sections follow Ginny closely, refraining from revealing any information that is not from her perspective. The letters from Aunt Peg, in contrast, provide that precious outside information, both illuminating Aunt Peg's life (making it less mysterious) and inviting Ginny to form her own adventures. As readers who are given as much mystery as Ginny is, wondering the same questions that preoccupy her, the letters become a source of authority.

For Ginny to become independent and interesting, however, she cannot rely entirely on the authority of any other person, even Aunt Peg. For this reason, as the novel progresses, she begins to rebel against the envelopes a bit, recognizing Aunt Peg's own imperfections when several envelopes fail to deliver on their expected promises. This progression allows Ginny to understand her aunt not as a magical, charmed person, always flying through life joyfully, but as someone who could at times be as insecure or misguided as Ginny. It also gives Ginny permission to break away from the rules of the letters from time to time, asserting her individuality by doing so.

This progression concludes with the novel's last chapter, when Ginny writes her own letter to her aunt. Explaining that the final letter was stolen, she writes, “Anyway, I figured I'd take over.” Although when Ginny writes the letter it may seem that she is symbolically becoming Aunt Peg, in actuality, she is becoming her own person, “taking over” her own life once and for all. There is much more for her to learn on these adventures, much more mystery ahead, but navigating the envelopes has helped her to understand that it is not Aunt Peg and not her parents, but in fact only she herself who will decide what that life will be.

Further Reading

  • Corbett, Sue. “The Queen of Teen.” Publishers Weekly 25 Feb. 2013: 26. Literary Reference Center. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=85761413&site=lrc-live>.
  • McCann, Erin. “Status Update with Maureen Johnson: Writer and Ideal Dinner-Party Guest.” Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/sep/27/maureen-johnson-status-update-books>.

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