The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos
The Plot: Ivy's mother used to work for the Rumbaugh twins, Abner and Adolph, in their pharmacy, so it makes sense that they are Ivy's babysitters, even if they appear a little odd; so identical no-one can tell them apart, seeming to need only each other. While playing in the basement, Ivy stumbles upon their secret and discovers the love curse of the Rumbaughs. As she grows up, she tries to understand the curse, and how she is connected to it.
The Good: OK, no way am I going to be able to do this without some spoilers, so be warned. And I won't spoil everything. For the spoiler shy, let's just say that it is dark; it is twisted; it is unique; and yet ... yet it is not scary. It is horror without the horror, if that makes sense. Which it won't, until you read the book.
What else to say before the spoilers start?
I love the range of Gantos; that he writes different types of books, and does it so well. I also like how this goes against some of the "rules" of YA books; Ivy, an adult, relates the story, and half happens when she is a child, half as an teenager.
Also worked into the plot is the true story of the American Eugenics Society, additional records here. Their purpose: promoting racial betterment, eugenic health, and genetic education; they believed nature over nurture to such an extent that some people should breed, and others should be forbidden to do so.
Spoilers, don't say I didn't warn you.
Here's the first spoiler. Love Curse described in one sentence: Psycho without the murders. A horror story told from the point of view of those doing the unimaginable.
See, the brothers Rumbaugh have a hobby. Taxidermy. And this may be the only young adult book that explains exactly how taxidermy works. Before you go all "gross", kids wonder about the stuffed real animals they see at museums, the mounted fish on the wall.
The brothers also have the "love curse," which is that they love their mother. A lot. So much, that parting from her, EVER, is too much for them. Abner and Adolph preserve her body for eternity; even putting her on a stand with wheels to make it easier for her to move around the house.
Part of Gantos's genius, is at all times the decisions of the Rumbaughs are presented just as the Rumbaughs see them: sensible. Practicable. Sense making. (Yet, because there are no murders -- just the macabre -- this doesn't become a horror book. Still, those readers who like books that are creepy and different will like this.) It's like how the Addams Family thought they were the normal ones.
The issues of eugenics and nature versus nurture are addressed not only in the childhood experience of the Rumbaughs -- their family was viewed as a "fitter family" that illustrated "mental, physical, and moral health of family members". Gantos doesn't give easy answers: "If you had to choose between being bullied around by your genes or bullied by your environment, what would you do?" Is there a strain in the Rumbaugh DNA that causes them to have such an unhealthy love of mother?
Love Curse is about loving your mother, and being afraid of losing her; of hanging on beyond death. Is that the ultimate show of love? Or the ultimate refusal to grow up? By keeping Mother's body in the basement, do the Rumbaugh twins hang onto a childhood that is seventy years in the past, turning themselves into twisted Peter Pans?
Some more lines from the book I like:
About the Rumbaughs' obsession: "Don't let your past spoil your future."
About a child not knowing all that is going on in her life, and the secrets parents keep from their children: "You are the lucky one. You get to live in a world full of secrets while all of theirs have been answered."
About the moment when childhood ends: "This is the moment when I stop being afraid of the unknown in my childhood and start to be afraid of the unknown in my adult life."
I'm adding this to my Best Books of 2006.
I liked this book, but I did feel adult readers might like it more than child readers. I felt the twistedness of the mother obsession was something adults would understand because we've had to grow away from our mothers. Kids are still close to them.
I liked this book so much that I convinced my book group to read it. Do you want to join in? I think there is so much to discuss but I worry about the intended audience. I wonder if young adults will get it.
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