“Glasshouse of Stars,” by Shirley Marr (Simon & Schuster for Young Readers), grabbed my attention from the start by the author’s use of second-person narration. It’s an unusual and bold choice and boy, does it ever work to create a feeling of disconnection and confusion.
The main character, Meixing, has traveled with her parents to live with her “First Uncle,” her mother’s brother. Unfortunately, before they can get there, he dies, so they are left to navigate this strange new life on their own.
The story opens like this:
“You have arrived for a better life at the New House in the New Land. It has been a long journey, the first time you’ve ever been on an airplane. It was nerve-racking when they checked the suitcases at the airport, even though your family has next to no possessions … You tell yourself everything is going to be fine. The hardest part is over. You made it.”
See what I mean?
A second striking element for me was making the New House a character, a big character, in the story. So fun!
Only Meixing sees it, but the shag carpeting is the house’s fur, the stains, its spots, the window at the top of the house winks at her, and the walls often glow a friendly, bright pink. Sometimes it feels like the house is settling, and it feels like a purr. Meixing names the house Big Scary, because she can’t quite tell if it is friend or foe.
Happily their neighbors, the Huynh family, stand ready to help. Although they, too, are relatively recent arrivals in this land, they don’t share the language or culture of Meixing’s family, so this adds to the confusion and feelings of disorientation. Still, Mrs. Huynh brings them food every day; dishes not quite familiar but not entirely foreign, Mr. Huynh helps Meixing’s father look for a job, and Kevin, their son, is in Meixing’s class at school.
The old place and the new place are never named, the languages of the new and old places are never named, and these devices make the story feel universal.
Marr’s use of magical realism, a device I have mixed feelings about, is captivating. As a reader I sometimes feel frustrated when I can’t tell what is real and what is in the character’s imagination but in this novel I just love the device. Not only is the house alive, but the glasshouse in the back yard — dirty, rusty and disheveled — also becomes a marvelously magical place. I will not give away the details, but the world of the glasshouse is reason enough to jump into this story.
Being a cat lover, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cat, gatekeeper to the glasshouse. The cat is as magical and as ordinary as all the other elements of Meixing’s story.
It’s hard enough to adapt to a new life, but Meixing’s father dies in a car accident shortly after they arrive. Meixing’s aunties and cousins descend upon the house, which expands to hold all the love and support, creating not just extra bedrooms but extra bathrooms! After they leave, however, Meixing’s pregnant mother, already stressing out, goes into a steep decline. What will happen to Meixing and her mom?
Meanwhile, at school, Meixing is put into Ms. Jardine’s class with Kevin and Josh, another boy who is also new to this country. This is a safe and happy place for Meixing.
Meixing is shy. She is scared. She is struggling. But she has found friends and supportive teachers in the midst of others who are not so supportive. Her imagination is a balm and one she shares with her new friends. We know she’ll work it all out and we hope she never loses the ability to enter into the magical world of the glasshouse and the Big Scary.
This review first appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette