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Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters    by Lesley M. M. Blume order for
Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters
by Lesley M. M. Blume
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Eleven-year old Cornelia S. Englehart of Greenwich Village, Manhattan, is the daughter of famed pianists: Lucy Englehart, as well as a father whom she has never met (he left before she was born). Lucy is in constant travel mode, performing concerts internationally. She arrives home for short stays but even then, she vacations by the sea, yet never takes her daughter along.

Cornelia is only invited to classmates' homes when someone seeks information on her famous mother or wants Cornelia to deliver an invitation to Mom to attend a soiree and possibly provide the evening entertainment. Cornelia compensates for her days of loneliness by visiting her favorite place, the Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street, where she collects dictionaries in all languages, bindings, and types. She loves using big and unusual words to baffle her caretaker, Madame Desjardins, especially when she wants to be left alone to read in the sanctuary of her room.

Cornelia's book of choice one particular evening is the Superior Person's Book of Words, in which the inside flap advertises: 'Put an end to fopdoodly speech; amaze your friends; baffle your enemies; write interoffice memos to end all discussion!' Madame exasperatedly tells her charge, 'Mon Dieu! You are too much', but she does worry about Cornelia when she hears her crying in the night. Then fate takes a hand in Cornelia's life ...

Doorman Walter Withycombe is a delightful character in presence and vernacular. His hair is white, with tufts that stuck out on his head, from nose and ears, and on fingers 'with their knobby joints'. Always smiling with his eyes, he speaks to Cornelia 'with the same level of respect as he did to adults.' Walter is sensitive to Cornelia's loneliness, thinking 'Somber as a widow ... I 'spect all she needs is a spot of sunshine. Miss Lucille should take 'er along on a trip once in a while.' And, that spot of sunshine soon beams brightly in Cornelia's life ...

The change in Cornelia's life comes via Virginia Somerset, a seventy-five-year-old writer with devoted treasures of an Indian assistant named Patel and a French bulldog named Mister Kinyatta. The new next-door neighbors are gracious when Cornelia first pays a call, after enticing the runaway Mister Kinyatta to return home via bakery goods. Cornelia witnesses the Somerset renovations when she walks into a splendid room of Moroccan motif, with silk pillows, colored glass lanterns, a thick oriental carpet, palm trees planted into the floor, and white-marble covered walls. A warm friendship blossome, especially since Virginia has the same love of books and words (practicing the 'art of parisology').

Virginia is the youngest of four (the others now deceased) sisters - twins Beatrice and Alexandria (painters), and portly Gladys (with a penchant for getting into adventurous, often sticky situations). When the Somerset sisters reached their twenties, they convinced their New York socialite parents that they should travel around the world to places such as France, England, and India, to become educated, before settling down in marriage (though they had no intentions to marry, since they had each other). Virginia tells of the enticing travels of these Somerset Adventuresses.

In 1949, the sisters traveled on the ocean liner Mauretania. Captain and crew were ecstatic to reach their destination, and see Gladys depart, as she played poker nightly and drew in all the winnings! The sisters sailed to Portugal, then Europe and Africa, and the famous Moroccan, port-of-call city of Casablanca. Then they journeyed by train to Marrakech to live in a rented home, which from the outside was 'tattered-looking', but a palace paradise inside. Virginia tells many delicious stories of their adventures.

Lesley M. M. Blume worked as an off-air reporter and researcher for ABC News' Nightline, and traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. She admits to being 'a very restless person'. I highly recommend Blume's debut offering for young (and old) adults. Though a mite lengthy in places, it is a curiously uplifting and informative story of being loved and giving love in return, of the sadness and reality of losing friends, of independence, of a love of words and books, and of encountering different cultures.

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