Catherine Gilbert Murdock offers up a solidly charming Middle Grade portal story involving travel through time and space, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, shifting timelines, feuding Renaissance artists, and of course, a cat. With a quick pace, high stakes, and two comically mismatched young protagonists, Da Vinci’s Cat (2021) will probably satisfy most young readers, despite some issues.
In 1511 Rome, 11-year-old Federico Gonzaga is a “guest-hostage” to Pope Julius II, ensconced in the Pope’s sumptuous villa to ensure the loyalty of his aristocratic family, particularly his father, who leads the Pope’s army. It’s a lavish, pampered existence for sure, but also constraining (he’s not allowed to leave the admittedly huge complex/grounds) and more than a little lonely. That loneliness is eventually abated by a strange trio who serially appear seemingly out of nowhere from a wardrobe sent as a gift to the Pope from the King of France. First to arrive is the aforementioned cat, then a 20th Century New Jersey art dealer named Herbert, and finally a young girl from our own time named Bee.
The cabinet, it turns out, was built by Leonardo Da Vinci (original owner of Juno the cat) and was discovered centuries later in an antiques shop by Herbert. Upon learning that young Federico has access to both Michelangelo and Raphael, both of whom are adorning the Pope’s newly built villa, Herbert convinces Federico to collect some of the artists’ sketches — Herbert gets nearly priceless artwork to sell, and Federico gets the miracle of chocolate, which won’t be discovered for another 100 or so years in the New World. We learn all this from following Federico, and then eventually shift back and forth between Federico and Bee, who enters the picture because while the cabinet’s mechanism means for the traveler it seems no time at all has passed when they return to their timeline, time between eras moves differently. So what might be a day for Federico is years for Herbert. This causes all sorts of complications, some with potentially tragic repercussions, not just for the characters but for all of history.
Da Vinci’s Cat, as most MG stories do, moves quickly apace, with little page time spent on descriptions, world building, explanations of how things work, etc. Young readers will likely zip through happily and if they get just a brief sense of Renaissance Rome (bad smells, lots of art, rich people in big homes and poor people dying in gutters), it’ll be enough for them. This isn’t necessarily a flaw but more a feature of most MG books, which choose to spend their limited time on character and action rather than background.
Federico’s stuffy and presumptuous high-born nature (as when he abruptly orders his servants about) could have been a deal-breaker, but that off-putting side of him is nicely balanced by other aspects — his aching loneliness, his love of art, his grief over a young sister who died a few years back.
Bee is less fully, richly drawn. Her time is pretty generic contemporary, and beyond her mismatched sneakers there’s less sense of individuality to her. The fact that she has two mothers feels a bit clumsily executed — Bee’s calling one “Mom” and the other “Moo,” for instance, seems unnecessarily complicated, too contrived for “quirky modern,” and too tossed aside when it’s revealed to Federico, who seems more confused by Bee’s lack of a dowry.
Though Bee’s story does get some emotional heft toward the end, she works better as a character in concert with Federico, thanks to their difference in time, culture, and social status, all of which make their attempts to understand the other’s lack of understanding often quite humorous. Honestly, though I understand the desire to match two young characters together, I wouldn’t have minded seeing more cross-generational interaction between Federico and Herbert, who is on and off stage too quickly, or between Federico and Herbert’s daughter (quite aged in Bee’s time). Either would seem to offer more emotional depth, a more unique type of story, and it would also have streamlined the characters/storyline a bit.
The prose is fine, certainly adequate to the story, though it doesn’t stand out in any way. Murdock paces the story well, creates some nice moments of tension, and even tosses in a few bandits. The cat adds some humor, and young readers will learn a bit about Renaissance artists (and their lack of bathing). Overall, Da Vinci’s Cat is a story that will, as noted, satisfy most young readers (I’d call it pretty strictly MG as opposed to MG/YA) even if it won’t linger too much in memory.