Richard Peck Jane Langton - Essay

Jane Langton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Good news for would-be writers! You too can create a costume romance about the British aristocracy, a profitable novel selected by book clubs, auctioned off to competing paperback publishers and optioned by film producers…. That is to say, anybody who has put in a lot of television watching time on Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street and all the rest of those imports, is ready to go. Just scramble them together and out will pop your novel. Of course you must try to think up a plot as brisk as [that of Richard Peck's Amanda/Miranda], in which two brunette beauties—an innocent lady's maid and her nasty mistress—are miraculously identical. Oh, what confusion in dark hallways when the brutish chauffeur lays his rough hands on the wrong girl! Oh, what excitement when maid and mistress sail for America in 1912 on a certain "unsinkable" liner of the White Star line (just like Lady Margery, remember?)!…

Missing [from this novel] is that valuable quality, authenticity, with its small surprises….

Richard Peck could probably write a good novel about his birthplace in Illinois, or about army bases in Germany, or even about the university in England where he was a student for a while. But his Whitwell Hall, with its columned portico, its balustraded terraces, its marble floors, paneled walls, canopied beds, Grecian temple and circular drive, is a confectionary stereotype, a palace made of sugar.

Authenticity creeps into the book only once, in a skillful description of the sinking of the Titanic. One suspects that the author was writing at last from experience, the eyewitness accounts of survivors. It is a welcome relief in this jumbled hand-me-down from Mishmashterpiece Theatre.

Jane Langton, "Build Yourself a Best Seller," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), March 23, 1980, p. 12.