You know the saying don’t judge a book by its cover? Well, I don’t really apply it to actual books. I have moments when I certainly judge them based on their covers alone. Take for example my copy of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. While mindlessly browsing the shelves of my favorite bookstore, its black and white cover of a little girl floating a few inches off the ground appealed to me almost instantaneously. Everything about it screamed fantasy, mystery, and horror all at once – three things that I’m very keen on. Even the title is interesting – Who is Miss Peregrine? What makes the children “peculiar?” Needless to say, I bought the book right then and there. But that was two years ago; now, it’s part of the TBR Everest I must conquer. Oh well…
What I want to point out is that my expectations were mostly built up by its promising cover. I got even more excited when I found out that the story is complemented by haunting vintage pictures. I remembered all those times I read the True Philippine Ghost Stories series back in grade school and I loved how those “real” pictures of ghosts heightened the experience of reading each story to the point that I couldn’t turn off the lights at night for an entire week. As someone who is already tired of reading about dystopian societies and inter-species love affairs that are currently the trend in YA, I was really looking forward to something different – and the dark vibe of Miss Peregrine seemed liked the one I was looking for. However, what I got instead is a book that’s more style than substance.
The premise was promising enough: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children introduces us to 16-year-old Jacob Portman who was very close to his paternal grandfather, Abe Portman. When Jacob was a child, Grandpa Abe would always tell him bizarre stories about the residents of the children’s home he lived in during the Second World War. He would even show pictures of the children as proof of his stories: there was a small girl carrying a boulder above her shoulders, a boy swarmed with bees, a girl holding a ball of fire, and so on. As Jacob grew older, however, he began to doubt his grandfather’s stories until one day, he stopped believing in them. His parents explained Grandpa Abe’s stories as his way of coping with the trauma caused by the war and the pictures as staged or faked. However, a terrifying tragedy strikes their family and Jacob is compelled to search for this children’s home to solve the mystery surrounding Grandpa Abe once and for all.
I was already preparing myself to be scared (or weirded) out of my wits but as the story progressed, however, I found it less and less frightening. The “haunting vintage pictures” were not related to ghosts or demons or cults or even near as creepy as this set of Easter bunnies that gave me nightmares; it was just a collection of ordinary pictures of people from long ago – like something you may find in your great grandmother’s dusty photo albums. I mean, there’s nothing scary about a girl peeling potatoes, is there? Or a girl with disheveled hair? Or a baby peeping out of her father’s shoulder? I can only remember three pictures that unnerved me a little and they were (1) the twins covered in white from head to toe, (2) the woman with the body of a dog, (3) and the scary Santa featured as an extra picture in the author’s notes.
As if that wasn’t disappointing enough, there was nothing sinister in the story itself, too. It’s just a variation of the “children with special abilities” trope as seen in X-Men, Heroes, and Alice Academy. Their powers or “peculiarities” are unremarkable – there is nothing that we haven’t seen or read before. I do understand that there may be certain limitations as to the extent of horrific things or situations that can be included in a novel targeted for 13 to 16-year-old kids so I guess I can let this one pass… or not. I mean, I read a lot of Goosebumps as a child and it did not seem to hold back the horror factor (hello Night of the Living Dummy!) even if it’s made for a younger audience than that of Miss Peregrine.
What I can’t certainly ignore are the lousy characters that abound in this book. They are all so one-dimensional and unendearing. Jacob, our “reluctant” hero, is a dull and selfish brat who complains a lot despite having so many privileges within his reach. I still liked him in the prologue because he seemed to be a sensitive young man who suddenly has his life turned around but then a few pages later, he started acting really bratty by attempting to have himself fired by the store he worked in – a store that happens to be owned by his parents so it’s not like they can fire him no matter how shitty he is – which really turned me off big time. Riggs tried to depict him as a ‘rogue’ and an ‘outcast’ – I understand it’s a common character trait in YA (probably a reflection of teenage anxieties) – but now that I think about it, maybe the real reason why he didn’t fit in with the others was not because he was intrinsically different, but because he was a total douchebag. I don’t even think he was very sincere at all in helping Miss Peregrine and the peculiars; I feel like he just wanted a way out of his “boring” life (typical privileged kid drama).
Miss Peregrine, who I thought would play an important role because the home was named after her, did nothing more than orient Jacob about the world of the peculiars. As for the peculiars themselves, their characterizations did not expand beyond their peculiarities. Everything was too simplistic: Emma is hot-headed and impulsive (fire), Millard is mischievous (invisible), Bronwyn is brave but a bit dumb (super strength), Horace is eccentric (visions), while Enoch is grim and cruel (necromancy). Well, at least they have personalities – however little they may be. The other peculiars weren’t as lucky. Some were just confined to the picture but were not mentioned in the actual story, like the twins in white costumes.
How about Jacob’s parents? They’re not only rich that they can afford to send their son to a faraway island for vacation, they’re also cold and uncaring which is perfect to serve the needs of the plot. The antagonists are not much different. The wights and the hollows are there to destroy the peculiars. Period. Don’t even bother asking why.
Then there is the troubling aspect of the forced attraction between Jacob and Emma Bloom. Emma Bloom is, of course, Grandpa Abe’s “sweetheart” when he was still living inside the children’s home. What am I supposed to think about a young boy starting a relationship with his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend? I’m perfectly aware that, technically, Emma is the same age as Jacob but still…! It makes me uncomfortable. And it’s not as if Emma is oblivious to the fact that Jacob is Abe’s grandson. I mean, at the moment they met, she was still pining for Abe. I don’t understand how she can suddenly mess around with his grandson? WTF, right? Why does it even have to be a romantic relationship, in the first place? Can’t they just be friends because of their shared affection for Grandpa Abe?
Finally, the story raises some questions about its world-building that I have a hard time reconciling. So Miss Peregrine created a loop to give a safe haven for the children during the war. However, that means they get to live the same day over and over again. The children are aware of the actual passage of time even though they are locked in the loop as evidenced in the scene where they proudly tell Jacob their ages which range from 70 to 80-years-old. Does that mean the loop makes them immortal? If the ymbrynes are tasked to take care of young peculiars but they lock them inside a loop where they don’t grow old – are there no other adult peculiars aside from ymbrynes? Thinking further, isn’t this arrangement kind of repressive? Is this why the other peculiars (who eventually turned into hollowgasts and wights due to a failed experiment) revolted and found a way to break the oppressive dictatorship of the ymbrynes? Maybe it was explained but I missed it because I was already feeling rather disappointed about the whole thing.
I get sad when I think that a book does not live up to its potential. Miss Peregrine has this great concept but the execution was a mess. Its gimmick wasn’t enough to save it from bad characters and sloppy storytelling. I guess the pictures became more of a liability than an asset for it created a heightened expectation of something dark and foreboding when all it could offer is an average paranormal adventure.
Oh, I forgot to mention that this book is the first part of a trilogy. Of course, it’s a series. Everything is a series nowadays. I don’t think I’ll be buying the second and third books even if they might contain the answers to the questions I have posted above. If there’s anything I’ve taken out of Miss Peregrine is that, when it comes to actual books, it is all the more important to dig deeper and never judge them solely by their covers.