Kepler’s Dream by Juliet Ball (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012) fizzles out in the first chapter. The main character is an eleven-year-old girl sent to live with her grandmother in Arizona for the summer while her mother undergoes cancer treatment in California.
Ella is a patronising child. She calls another guest in her grandmother’s house, “…Our Honored Pest, I mean Guest…” (5). She refers disdainfully to Rosie, a girl her own age, saying, “…even if she hated me, I didn’t want the kid to die of hypothermia” (3). Later, when she thinks she does not appear intelligent in front of her, she says, “…I actually scored pretty high on comprehension tests at school” (7) In case readers don’t know how to read, she includes a parenthetical pronunciation guide: “…Spokane, Washington (say Spo-can, not Spo-cain)…” (17). And in case readers have a poor reading level, she goes to great lengths to explain the word ‘expletive’ (21).
Ella is disdainful of Christianity. She says of a room that is empty, “The only person…was Jesus on the cross, and he wasn’t talking” (9). She says that her mother calls her sister a “…’technical’ aunt…”, and Ella can’t go stay with her because she is taking her children to a “…Christian family camp…” (20-21). Despite her world-weary air of superiority, Ella is pleased with herself, saying she is “… a regular, mortal eleven-year-old, with ordinary powers” although maybe her “…dead grandfather’s spirit [is] helping [her] along” (5).
The language in the novel goes back and forth between the voice of a young child and the voice of a self-satisfied teenager. Ella refers to her mother as being “super-sick”, the language of a child (4). When there are bright lights and noise outside at night, she wonders whether they are caused by “Thieves? Murderers? Pirates?” (11). Her dog gives her a “big licky greeting” (12). Later, her father is letting “…a few other things…slide, like worrying about his daughter, but – whatever” (157).
Cliches abound. “Piece of cake!” she says (5). “The stars blinked…and kept their secrets to themselves” (8). When she and Rosie start a fire, it starts “Like a house on fire” (9). They gaze into the flames that are “…moving around each other like in a dream” (10). Ella’s father is not “…a bad person…” but does not “…know how to be a dad. It was like no one ever gave him the manual” (17). And when she cannot go to stay with her aunt, she and her mother are not “…exactly heartbroken” (21).
Similes are often confusing. Ella gets cold at night and so sometimes her nose gets “cool and clammy” like a dog’s (2). But a cool nose on a dog is a good thing and for Ella it’s not so good.
And the timing is off. Ella asks Rosie , “Which is his room?” and then says it is “neat” before actually walking into it and describing it, so a reader cannot follow along as if in the story because the verdict comes before the description (8-9).
Every page is full of irritations. And at the end of the story, Ella is just as patronising and self-satisfied as at the beginning. This book is recommended for no one but friends of the author.