Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope

 The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson. HarperCollins. 2010. Review from ARC from ALA Midwinter.

The Plot: In Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone was left thirteen envelopes by her late aunt, resulting in a tour of Europe that pushed Ginny outside her comfort zone and gave her some insight and understanding into the life of her Aunt Peg. Unfortunately, it all ended with the unopened thirteenth envelope was stolen.

It’s a few months later and Ginny is in her senior year, trying to figure out her future as well as to keep living the lessons she learned over the summer. To her surprise, she is contacted by a stranger who has found the stolen envelopes … and a new adventure begins.

The Good: I’m sure I’m not the only one who threw Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes across the room when the last envelope was stolen. ARGH. And while I understood and it made perfect sense for the book, I still was very ARGH about it. So I was pleased as punch when I heard that there was going to be a sequel and my torment would end.

Yes, this is a sequel, so yes, I recommend reading the first book first. I read the first one when it came out and yes, I forgot some of the key points and no doubt my reading experience would have been richer had I reread the book. But, I didn’t, and I still enjoyed it.

Ginny is hilarious. I love her observations and internal commentary on what is happening. From early on in the book: “She looked at the calendar she had made for herself out of sticky notes on the wall next to her desk. Today’s note read: Sunday, December 12: FINISH ESSAY!!!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS TIME FINISH THE ESSAY!!!!! And a few lines down, the due date: January 5. She pulled it off the wall and tossed it into the trash. Shut up, note. She didn’t take orders from anything that had a glue strip.” The whole book is like this; so if you’re looking for smart humor, read The Last Little Blue Envelope. (Which, for some reason, I keep wanting to call The Thirteenth Envelope.)

The mysterious Oliver contacts Ginny about the found letters; he is all and “come to London now if you want your letters back.” Kind of like Aunt Peg was to Ginny: “do what I say in the blue envelopes.” Ginny takes her winter holiday break to go to London, stay with her Aunt Peg’s husband, and, honestly, to see Keith, her “kind of something” flirty-kissy friend she met in the first book. And, yes, to get the envelope. It all turns out to be exactly what Ginny planned… and nothing like Ginny planned. The last envelope contains new directions that send Ginny to a mix of new and old places, and this time she has friends to keep her company. 

By the end of this book, I was resolved to start saving my money immediately to go to London, Paris, Dublin, and the other places Ginny visits. Johnson does a spectacular job of conveying a range of settings, in a way that makes you wish you were there. Except, I wouldn’t stay in hostels. Unless I had my own bathroom and my own bedroom.

Oliver and Keith are two very different, very interesting boys with a realistic mix of good and bad characteristics. Both, at times, do things that make you want to hit them — you know, a back of the head “thwap.” Both, at times, do things that make you go “awwww”. Neither is perfect. To say much more would give away those things I enjoyed learning for myself, so I will leave other readers the joy (and sorrow) of reading it themselves.

One quibble I had about the first book was that the free-spirited, artsy Aunt wanted to shake up her niece’s world and make her niece more free-spirited and artsy and did so by providing specific rules and “to do”s. On one level, it worked in that Ginny is the type of girl who needed that push and needed, well, those specifics. Also, since Aunt Peg wasn’t going to be around to do it in person — to take Ginny on a spontaneous tour of Europe — she was trying to do the next best thing. At the time, I told myself “this is the conceit of the book. Accept it, move along.” Still, it was a bit too “planned spontaneity.”

I was really pleased that halfway through The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of the characters raises some of the exact questions I had: “”Those rules, they were a bit mental.” “Did you ever think that she expected you to break some of them?”Maybe you like all the rules, the backtracking, the games.” I liked someone in text thinking what I had, and also leading me to new answers, such as Aunt Peg knowing Ginny would enjoy the game-aspect of the letters. Ginny didn’t just need that guidance; she wanted it. Aunt Peg knew her niece. And knew how to reach out and give Ginny what she needed and wanted.

I had forgotten how much of the first book was about art, creation of art, and the way an artist looks at the world. Aunt Peg’s last letter to Ginny is as much about giving Ginny a quest as it is about giving Ginny some training and education on art. Actually, I have a theory about that… when more people have read, let’s discuss.