Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 25, 2020
Wow, what an eclectic, fun and rollicking read this time travel book is, whihc so successfully weaves such diverse oddball themes and characters into one fascinating tale set in 1903 Paris, in the golden age of the Moulin Rouge. I wish learning history had been this much fun when I was in high school. The main characters are the twins Iris and Arky (she's sensitive and he's acidly cranky and irascible), as they try to rescue their scientist mom who accidentally sent herself back in time by doing somewhat reckless time travel experiments that succeeded.
An example of a character who embodies the opposite extremes so successfully woven together in this book is a bizarre performer Arky and Iris meet who's existence is historical fact, not fiction. His popular act was based around his weird ability to control the sound of his flatulence to such an astounding degree he could, and did, flatulate anything from the French national anthem, to the sound of barnyard animals, to famous battles. In French he was called Le Petomane (loosely translated as The Fartomaniac). Scientists wanted to autopsy him after his death to see what kind of strange anatomy he possessed that gave him this odd ability, but his family refused. In his prime Le Petomane was famous and successful but also happened to be a very nice family man and a good citizen. Meehl highlights the paradox between the perceived absurdity and crudity of his occupation and his niceness and solidity as a human being, when heartbreaking trouble barrages Arky, and Le Petomane is willing to take significant risks to help him out.
On the other extreme of the character/vocation spectrum is Iris, who's enmeshed in classical music. She's an empathetic, loving person, who's totally devoted to mastering her oboe playing and hopes the unpredictable time travel magic controlling the situation will send her back to the present in time to attend an all-important audition at a famous music school. Central to finding their mom, and featured in previous books of the trilogy, is a time travel clue their mom leaves for Arky and Iris by teaching past-era people a melody from Dvorak's New World Symphony so the kids would know she'd been in that era if they were ever able to follow. These past-era characters are often featured whistling or singing Dvorak's classic melody shortly before it was premiered, or in a place it couldn't possibly have been heard yet. Here we have a fascinating, successful integration of the odd extremes of an encounter between a serious classical musician and a good-natured master of flatulence sounds (maybe in the end sound is just sound).
Another great strength of Meehl's time travel depictions is how he handles ordinary people meeting very famous people in notoriously classic settings. This is tricky stuff, because it's often hard to make uber-famous people come off like real human beings who drank coffee, ate eggs and had problems. Of course, in their own time, they were often considered mere interesting eccentrics by most people. No one in his era knew Toulouse-Lautrec would end up being a world-famous artist who's artwork would sell for millions, and Meehl does a superb job of getting across Toulouse-Lautrec's human day to day-ness. He plays with this element subtly and humorously at times, like using the contrast between Arky and Iris' reactions to meeting famous characters. Iris studied art history and is a huge fan of Tolouse-Lautrec so when she meets him, she's star struck to the point of being tongue tied. Arky, on the other hand, could care less about art history and has never heard of him, so he considers the artist just another oddball among oddballs. But Arky not feeling the least bit intimidated or star struck by Tolouse-Lautrec allows him to become more intimate with the artist and put his cranky Arky iconoclasm on full roaring display, which, in turn, amuses Lautrec and draws him to Arky.
I also loved that Octavia, being a physicist, frames time travel as a scientific proof that upends current theories that quantum physics postulates about time, space and matter (without getting too technical or engaging in obscure science-speak). All the other time travel books I've read focus more on the adventure of it all and minimize, or leave out, the revolutionary scientific implications of time travel, whihc would likely come to mind for most modern time travelers were it to actually happen. This added touch makes his time travel seem all the more real. Marooned in the past for year, Octavia has realized that if she'd really understood the suffering her disappearance would cause her family, she would have given up her experiments in a nano-second. Her guilt has been somewhat assuaged by knowing that many break-through scientists became obsessed with a subject and went out on a limb that cause their financial ruin, or in some way made their families suffer, but this doesn't assuage Arky's anger. He's scientifically-oriented so ongoing discussion of the scientist's traditional obsessive mindset that possessed her is ultimately a bridge between them that makes for heated interchanges.
I wont even go into any further details of the wonderful suspense Meehl generates, or the dark humor and mysterious Parisian film noir atmosphere that surface at times, or even a moving tragedy that saddens the book's characters and the reader to the bone.
I end by saying that this is an unusually fascinating and fun book that's perfect for distracting people's mind from the Covid-19 pandemic. I've found reading books has been a surprisingly more effective method of taking a break from pandemic anxiety and home-isolation boredom that anything I've seen on screens. Why? A book lets you to fill in the final layer of detail, color and setting of depicted scenes and characters with your own imagination, whereas screen entertainment spells everything out in such literal detail it doesn't engage your mind so completley. But even if there wasn't a pandemic going on, you wont regret perusing this bizarre, heartfelt, and truly amusing read.