The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Mar 15, 2017

This book has been on my personal to-read list for several years, and I waited long enough to pick it up that by the time I finally did, I had a child who was old enough to read it, too. Procrastination for the win.

I gave it to Aaron for Christmas but told him to let me know when he was ready to read it because I wanted to read it, too. It ended up being a great book to read along with someone else because the whole story is a little like one giant puzzle, and it was nice to have someone to discuss and speculate with.

Reynard Muldoon (Reynie for short) is something of a genius, or at the very least, extremely gifted. Sadly, this natural intelligence does not help him relate to or make friends with the other children in the orphanage, so he is a bit of a loner. The only person he can really talk to is Miss Perumal--his tutor, friend, and surrogate mother all rolled into one.

One day, he and Miss Perumal are reading the morning newspaper (a favorite ritual of theirs) and come across this advertisement: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" Even though Reynie has no idea what those "special opportunities" might be, he figures he might as well give it a shot. The test is broken up into three parts (with a couple of secret tests masquerading as normal events thrown in), and Reynie excels at all of them. Only three other children besides himself make it to the final round , and when they've all made it through to the other side (literally--the last test is a maze), they find out that they've been carefully selected by Mr. Benedict for a secret mission.

Strange things have been happening over the last few years. Government officials have given it the rather blanket title, "the Emergency," but basically there's just a lot of chaos and confusion, and it grows by the day and no one can seem to make sense of it.

Mr. Benedict has been studying the Emergency for years, and he knows it has something to do with messages being secretly broadcast to the citizens and that these messages are somehow coming from the Institute--a mysterious school on Nomansan Island. Mr. Benedict knows time is running out and that children are his last hope of infiltrating the system.

Besides Reynie, there's George "Sticky" Washington, who has a photographic memory and can regurgitate information at will; Kate Wetherall, whose physical prowess can't be matched, especially when she has her trusty bucket of supplies belted to her waist; and Constance Contraire, a mere slip of a girl who has the most unyielding stubborn streak. Together, those four make up the Mysterious Benedict Society, and Mr. Benedict warns them that they are all necessary to the team and they must rely on each other in order to succeed.

This need for teamwork was one of my favorite parts of the book, particularly because it's fairly obvious from the beginning why Reynie, Sticky and Kate were chosen, but it's not at all evident why Constance made the cut. She complains about everything, she's tired all the time, she doesn't do well on any of the tests, she has to be carried everywhere because she's too short to keep up, and she's always grumpy. The other three are tempted more than once to leave her behind because she definitely seems like more of a hindrance than an asset. But they remember Mr. Benedict's counsel, and the whole time I kept thinking, There has to be more to Constance than anyone else is seeing. Somehow she's going to end up doing something very important. And sure enough, Constance's talents are indeed needed at a very critical moment in the story, but I liked that the reader had to have a little bit of faith, along with Reynie, Sticky, and Kate, for the majority of the book before that confidence in Constance paid off.

As much as I liked the whole book, I will say that the first third was actually the most interesting part for me. I really loved seeing the formation of the team, but once they were actually in the Institute, it lost a little of its drive for me--I think because I could never quite figure out how these "messages" were going to overtake the world, so the threat didn't carry as much impact as it probably should have. I understood that the citizens were going to be brainwashed, or, even worse, "brainswept" (memories erased), but the logistics and actual method were a little lost on me.

But I thoroughly loved the characters and loved seeing their trust and friendship for one another develop and deepen throughout the book. These thoughts from Sticky were echoed by all of the Mysterious Benedict Society: "And yet, in these last days, he'd become friends with people who cared about him, quite above and beyond what was expected of him. With perfect clarity he remembered Reynie saying, 'I need you here as a friend.'"

In many ways, it reminded me of Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, which Aaron and I read last year. The stakes aren't nearly so high (it's just a game rather than a possible take-over-the-world threat), but the puzzles and the teamwork and the friendship and the importance of knowing who to trust are all there. But if I'm really comparing the two books, I have to be honest and say that The Mysterious Benedict Society surpasses Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library on all counts.

Sometimes it's so hard for me to tell if Aaron likes a book or not (this spills over to all other parts of his life as well). He never complained about reading it, but it wasn't like he couldn't put it down. But then I overheard him telling Max about the plot and the characters, and I knew we'd found a winner. Only some books are worth sharing with your younger brother.

2 comments:

  1. This was one of our first "Family Book Club" books, and both my boys loved it. And then my ladies book club read it, and we invited my then third grader to join us for a kids-eye perspective. Fun meetings for both clubs!

    Sorta funny story -- right after we read this, my oldest was tested by the school for Asperger's/ADHD issues. They asked him to write a sentence, so he wrote "Rules and school are tools for fools." In his mind, he was sharing a favorite book with them, assuming everyone had read it. Of course the school therapist reported this as a sign of aggression and hostility towards her. Luckily the teacher (who had also read the book) backed me up when I explained it was more a sign of his love of books as well as his complete failure at predicting social reactions, which what was the meeting was all about... (Later on my other son took a similar test, and his sentence was "Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." Which is actually a sentence, although it was not initially recognized as such. )

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