Gregory Maguire’s Egg and Spoon is being marketed as a YA novel, and I hope that designation doesn’t drive any readers away. This book blends the humor and hunger of real life with the wonder and otherworldliness of fables, resulting in a story that broke my heart so subtly, it was like a crack developing in an egg.
Egg and Spoon follows two young protagonists in Tsarist Russia. Elena Rudina, a peasant girl from the village of Miersk, meets a young noblewoman, Ekaterina (or Cat, for short), whose train has stopped in Miersk for repairs. The two girls become unlikely friends until one day, in a bizarre series of events, Elena and Cat accidentally switch places. Elena is whisked away on the train, dressed in fine clothing, fed more food than she’s seen in her impoverished life, and taught manners and etiquette in anticipation of an expected meeting of the Tsar’s nephew in St. Petersburg. Cat, on the other hand, is stuck behind in Miersk with Elena’s sickly mother, until she sets off through the forest to find her way to St. Petersburg and her normal life. On the way, Cat encounters Baba Yaga and her cat in their house on chicken legs, and a marvelous journey begins.
Like the game from which it takes its name, Egg and Spoon also follows the precarious journey of breakable things. The egg of the Firebird, a legendary glowing bird from Russian folklore, has been lost. The future of Russia — as a nation, as an idea, as a landmass — depends on the survival of the Firebird, so much of the novel is a wild-goose chase (pun intended) to find the egg and hatch a new Firebird. But the novel is just as invested in the real-life, day-to-day survival of the Russian poor; Elena and Cat represent the next generation, the one that is born in Tsarist Russia but matures in Bolshevik Russia. They are able to forge a friendship and build trust with each other despite class barriers. This ability is as precious and fragile as the egg of the Firebird, and Russia’s people will need it.
Both Elena and Cat are well-drawn characters, lovable despite their flaws. Cat is able to move past her privilege to travel with the eccentric (and possibly child-eating) Baba Yaga. She quickly grasps the enormity of the situation with the Firebird and will not give up the search for it, even when it might be easier to resume her lavish life in St. Petersburg. On the other hand, Elena’s journey to St. Petersburg is originally motivated by her desire to find her brother, conscripted into the Tsar’s army. While she never fully loses sight of this goal, her desire for the ease and luxury of Cat’s life causes her to pretend a little too long, like a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes. But it is only pretend and when she goes back to poverty-stricken Miersk to attend her sick mother, she knows she is leaving satin and caviar behind forever. Watching both of these characters as they develop compassion and responsibility was moving. It reminded me in many ways of Maia, the protagonist from Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor.
The storylines of minor characters are equally affecting. Cat’s nurse and butler, for instance, are devoted to Elena and Cat, although it endangers their jobs and neither girl is particularly grateful. At one point, Cat asks them why they are helping her. They answer that although they cannot fix Russia, they will help where they can. “That’s all that most of us who are not Tsars or witches can manage to do.” At this very Mother Teresa-like philosophy, I broke down crying while reading in the tub and almost dropped the book in the water.
Even the dangerous Baba Yaga has her moments of pathos. As the girls leave her, she shows signs of real emotion. “They could see through Baba Yaga, too. The fiendish glee had gone. Her face looked ancient, betraying that she saw worries behind her eyes as well as in front of them . . . . They could hear a sound from Baba Yaga that they’d never heard before. No one could bear to admit what it was.”
Baba Yaga is one of the delights of Egg and Spoon. Her dialogue is witty, sharp, and deliciously morbid, urging Cat to eat some borscht because she finds it “a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” It’s also full of references to literature, folktale, and contemporary pop-culture. When Cat neglects to eat her borscht, Baba Yaga says, “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” In this way, she reminded me of Merlin from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, who, because he is living backwards in time, can reference World War II in his talks with Arthur.
Another delight is the first-person narrator, whose identity we only learn late in the novel. The narrator’s voice is clearly realized and lends a meta-fictional aspect to Egg and Spoon; he seems like nothing so much as a clever, gifted storyteller, a wise and funny grandfather-type. The narration is interspersed with short meditations on the story itself and the narrator often addresses the reader directly. For instance, this passage, while Elena is imprisoned: “I suppose you could say that Elena deserved to weep; she’d made a royal botch of it. But we all do sometimes. If we’re lucky, we weep alone. The one thing captivity can be good for: privacy.”
Maguire’s writing also includes moments of poetic illumination. For instance, the first time we encounter Baba Yaga’s kitten Mewster, he is in the form of a prowling forest cat. Maguire describes him thus: “A look of golden longing in its eye . . . Its face an exotic blossom of fur.” Another example, a description of geese flying: “But every time they turned a certain way in the dawn sun, the cloudless sky became a skin like fish scales, blinking. It seemed a language, a set of signals, if only they knew how to read it. The shadow of their flight upon the ground, a word inscribed upon the earth.” I will not quote my favorite passage, both because it must be experienced in the context of the story and because it is beneath my dignity to blubber all over my computer twice in the same review.
The advanced vocabulary and intensely poetic images in Maguire’s prose, combined with the gravity and maturity of the book’s themes, made Egg and Spoon feel more like fabulist literary fiction than a YA book. I realize that, on a content level, this is a nitpicky and ultimately false distinction. YA books can be as deep, meaningful, and precisely written as books marketed to adults. I’m preaching to the choir here; most of us here at FanLit read and enjoy YA.
But on a marketing level, these terms — “young adult” vs. “literary fiction” — carry weight. Some adults just won’t see a book marketed to a YA audience. Not that they have any grudge against YA, but its existence will float right past their consciousness as they tune in for books that are marketed to their readership. As a (admittedly fledgling) bookseller, I can’t really imagine the teen to whom I would sell this book, probably because, as a teen, a lot of it would have been over my head. I would have loved the folklore-inspired scenes, but I’m not sure I would have understood the deeper implications of class, wealth, and the impending Russian revolution. Maybe that doesn’t matter. I can imagine the adult that I will sell this book to — the readers of Helene Wecker, and Josh Weil, and Lauren Owen, the ones who maybe don’t know they like fabulism before they have it foisted upon them. And I intend to foist it upon them.