I decided I wanted to read The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver on the basis of the first line: "One night when Liza went to bed, Patrick was her chubby, stubby, candy-grubbing and pancake-loving younger brother, who irritated and amused her both, and the next morning, when she woke up, he was not." I was drawn to the way the line captures the ups and downs of the sibling relationship: impossible and irreplaceable at once. The book did not disappoint in that regard. Patrick is not present through much of the book, but Liza's memories of their games, stories, and disagreements portrays the relationship well, particularly from the older sister's point of view.
Also impressive is Olver's description of stories and their importance. Liza tells herself stories all through The Spindlers; she tells them, "as though she was weaving and knotting an endless rope. Then, no matter how dark or terrible the pit she found herself in, she could pull herself out, inch by inch and hand over hand, on the long rope of stories." She needs her awareness of magic and all the stories she can remember when Patcick's soul is stolen, and only she realizes this because she has listened to her babysitter, Anna, tell of magical beings and of evil creatures, the spindlers, spider-like beings who steal souls and take them to their underground lairs. Liza knows she has only a day to save him, and she uses stories to guide her and give her strength through her travels. Anna's stories guide her, but remembering the stories she herself has told Patrick and imagining the stories she will tell him give her the strength to face the darkness and the monsters below.
Liza is also an engaging heroine, strong by virtue of her persistence, her love for her brother, and her willingness to turn to stories for guidance. She's not flawless, nor does she suddenly develop unusual heroic traits when she goes underground. She is an ordinary young girl in a strange world, and she uses what she knows to navigate, and that is enough.
Where The Spindlers does falter is in its mythology. Oliver's creatures are a mix of recognizably European fairy-tale types, author-invented beasts, and talking animals. They do not always mesh particularly well, and I sometimes stopped reading to wonder why Oliver used gnome-like creatures rather than just having gnomes, or why she included a fairy-court analog rather than sticking to just plain old fairies. Who was Anna and how did she know all of these stories? The world Below seems a bit of a hodge-podge of this-n-that. Whether this would bother the general eight to ten year old reader, I can't say. My inner child isn't so very deeply buried, and she is rather legalistic about these things, so I probably would have noted them, just as I would have wondered (as I do now) how it is possible for rats to blush.
The episodic nature of the story, which troubled Fyrefly, did not bother me now and probably would not have done so then: I like novels that break the mold (at least sometimes I do), but I also like tales that stick to the proper order of things, and The Spindlers was comfortingly orderly.
Overall, I do not think The Spindlers would have made it onto my childhood "favorite books ever" list, but I do think I would have liked it, and as someone who has pulled herself out of troubles, "hand over hand, on the long rope of stories," on more than one occasion, I can tell you that that is no small thing.
Fyrefly's review (also linked to above, but two links won't hurt, will it?). Fyrefly has the habit of quoting a book's first line, so I think you can guess how I came to read the book.
Charlotte of Charlotte's Library reviews the novel. Oddly, I hadn't read her review before, and I'm usually right on top of her blog.
Lauren Oliver's page for The Spindlers. There are links to her blog and to other book pages as well.