Under the Egg starts out with a horrific bang: 13-year-old Theodora Tenpenny sees that her beloved grandfather Jack has just been struck by a cab. She’s just in time to hear his dying words, “Look under the egg,” with instructions to also look for a letter and a treasure.
A treasure is urgently needed, because Theo lives in a 200-year-old Manhattan townhouse with her unstable (but pleasant) mother, who spends her hours sipping expensive tea and working on a math dissertation that’s been unfinished for years. The family funds in Jack’s money jar are rapidly dwindling, with only $384 left, leaving Theo to subsist on their chickens’ eggs and beets from the garden.
One day, as Theo mulls her fate in her grandfather’s art studio, a mouse runs up her leg, causing her to spill a bottle of rubbing alcohol on one of Jack’s paintings. It turns out that another painting lies underneath, which upon further inspection might be a Raphael. Theo is bewildered and a bit alarmed, because Jack was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Could this treasure be stolen?
Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s fiction debut reminds me of a middle-grade version of Donna Tartt’s award-winning The Goldfinch, which also involves a teen whose guardian suddenly dies and who becomes the unexpected caretaker of a valuable work of art. Both novels share a certain Dickensian quality, along with an abundance of action and plot twists and turns.
Just as Tartt’s hero gains a sidekick, Theo soon meets Bodhi, the daughter of famous actors, who quickly becomes her friend and fellow detective. The pair roams New York City, tracking down clues about the origin of this mysterious artwork. Their search is a riveting exploration of art history and world events, especially once Theo and Bodhi unearth the fact that Jack was held captive in a German POW camp during World War II and was involved in a secret mission.
Readers will sail through this novel, thanks to Fitzgerald’s skilled writing, which includes just the right amount of historical details to make this caper riveting from start to finish.