A really charming read with a focus on friendship and adventure.
Originally published in 2018
A locked room. A stolen treasure. A mysterious challenge.
Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together.
While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belong to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward – and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist!
But the broth and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?
Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may know that my daughter is growing up to be a mystery fan, much like her dad and several of her grandparents. This has been a source of some delight to me and I have been quite happily working through series like Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew with her, enjoying watching as she pieces the solutions together.
Unfortunately lately I have run into a bit of a problem as she has outgrown a few of those early series, finding them a little too simple, and wants more complex stories with older child protagonists but she isn’t really ready for some of the subject matter that might come with it such as kidnapping or murder. That hasn’t kept me from looking though and when I read the blurb to this novel which centers on the disappearance of a valuable ring, I thought it might just be exactly what I have been looking for.
Paloma Marquez had been looking forward to relaxing over summer with her friends so she is frustrated when her mother tells her that they will be spending four weeks in Mexico City as part of a university exchange. Not only will Paloma be away from her friends, she will also be taking Spanish lessons during the days.
On their first night, Paloma is taken to the Casa Azul, the home of artist Frida Kahlo which has been turned into a museum. There she meets several children her own age including a pair of siblings, Lizzie and Gael, who pass her a note asking for her help in righting ‘a great injustice’. This, we learn, is the disappearance of a unique peacock ring that Kahlo had made in the final days of her life and which was supposed to be among the treasures kept in a locked room following her death.
The early chapters of this story do a great job of quickly introducing us to Paloma and helping us understand her background and her feelings about her new surroundings. Though Paloma is initially a little sulky, younger readers will have little difficulty understanding the causes and empathizing with her situation and those characteristics are balanced with more positive ones of curiosity and her desire to connect with any memories of her father.
I felt the latter is done particularly well as we slowly learn a little about her father, who died in tragic circumstances in Paloma’s very early childhood. There are some lovely observations about the way Paloma tries to retain those memories while also being conscious of not wanting to upset her mother. The relationship between those two characters is also excellent, striking me as positive and truthful even though her mother will present obstacles to her solving the mystery.
Those early chapters also do an excellent job of setting out the problem that Paloma will need to solve and why she decides to get involved. While I initially felt that the way she is drawn into the case was a little too dramatic, I appreciated that the motivations for characters’ involvement were given added depth in later chapters which made me much happier with how it worked overall. In any case, I suspect that when I read this to my kid she will love the device of the secretly-passed note and connect with Paloma’s love of mystery stories.
As for the discussion of Frida Kahlo, I think that Cervantes does a good job of explaining her significance as an artist referencing several aspects of her life and work in ways that are probably appropriate for the target audience. I also appreciate the expression of the idea that art can be symbolic and narrative and also that what we observe in a painting can be different based on our own experiences and ideas.
The case itself unfolds more as an adventure than a detective story, though there is some discussion about working through clues in a structured and organized way. There are several hints to the truth of what is going on though the scenario is simple enough and the cast of characters is small enough that some readers may well arrive at the solution just by process of elimination. While I have a few issues with the way the villain of the piece is caught, I do appreciate their motive and the way discussion around that topic is framed throughout the book (ROT-13: Bar bs gur vqrnf gung vf zragvbarq guebhtubhg gur fgbel vf gung vg vf vzcbegnag gb ergnva vgrzf bs phygheny urevgntr jvguva gur pbhagel gung perngrq gurz. Gur ivyynva’f zbgvir, bs fgrnyvat naq fryyvat na negvsnpg birefrnf sbe cebsvg, vf abg va vgfrys bevtvany ohg gur qvfphffvba nebhaq gung vffhr vf cvgpurq cresrpgyl sbe gur gnetrg nhqvrapr).
While I appreciate the resolution of the case overall and think it fits the themes of the story, I did have some issues with some characters’ reactions. In particular, there is a letter that Paloma receives in the final pages that provides some closure, which is important and perhaps needed, but I am not sure that I believe that the author of that note would have that outlook on things. It just feels a bit too tidy, at least for me.
Which I suppose brings me back to the beginning and the question of whether I plan to share this with my own mystery-loving seven year old. The answer is probably not yet, though I want to stress that doesn’t reflect on the quality of the book or my feelings about its suitability in terms of its themes or content. Instead I plan to wait a year or so simply because I think she will get a lot more out of it then, particularly with regards to those cultural references. I suspect that when we do read it she will love it and, no doubt, bemoan that it is a standalone as Paloma is ultimately quite an endearing protagonist.