The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
By Reif Larsen. Hamish Hamilton Canada, 320 pp, $35, hardcover
Last year, the manuscript of Reif Larsen's debut novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, ignited a bidding war between publishers, including Random House, Viking, and Riverhead. Penguin eventually emerged triumphant, acquiring the publication rights for close to US$1 million. It is easy to understand the furor over T. S. Spivet—a story about a child prodigy's trip from Montana to Washington, D.C., embroidered with numerous cute visual aids—but it is difficult to agree that the excitement is justified.
This fluctuating tale about family and discovery, order and organization, progresses slowly until its sudden end. It begins at the Coppertop Ranch, “just North of Divide, Montana”, and introduces Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, a genius cartographer who maps the minutiae of the world around him. He is set to receive a “Baird award for the popular advancement of science” from the Smithsonian Institution. Unbeknownst to the Smithsonian, T. S. is 12 years old.
Larsen, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, has created a sympathetic narrator in T. S., a character who is both laboriously academic and endearingly sincere. He can map drainage patterns, articulate psychological nuances, and declare “I like children's books.”
Slipping away from home and stowing away on trains, T. S. eventually arrives in Washington. Much of the plot line during this portion of the book is composed of excerpts from his mother's notebook chronicling the life of T. S.'s ancestors. This history includes a female geologist who, as a minority in her field, mirrors T. S.'s own concerns about being professionally dismissed.
Upon arriving at the Smithsonian, T. S. begins to wonder whether the acclaim he receives is what he wants.
The uneven pacing of T. S. Spivet is a major weakness. Much of the text is devoted to memories, geographic descriptions, and scientific data, and what little action occurs ends abruptly. The erratic movement of the story disengages the reader and does little to advance the narrative. Many of the story's threads are left hanging, and the characters, excluding T. S., come across as flat and underdeveloped.
The reader wants to like T. S. Spivet. The premise, the narrator, and especially the adorable pictures are appealing—but these quickly lose their charm.