I shouldn't say "uniformly." Lowry's greatest creations in this book are these suitors, who would fit nicely in a lineup with Roald Dahl's most appallingly icky characters. Actually, you may not be surprised to learn that the book is illustrated by Jules Feiffer, America's answer to Quentin Blake.
Suitor #1 is Duke Desmond, who is so hideous that no mirrors are allowed in his presence. Duke Desmond has issues with dental hygiene, and with hygiene in general. Even his hair is a menace, a coarse whip-like tuft that has been known to brain people who are foolish enough to get in its path.
Duke Desmond abuses his power and wealth, but he seems pleasant in comparison to Prince Percival of Pustula, who dresses in black, adorns his dyed black hair with grease, and stares in the mirror constantly, murmuring compliments to his own pecs and thighs. The prince has a habit of spraying saliva when he says words that start with P. Here's how Lowry introduces Prince Percival:
Black matched the darkness of his moods—he was always depressed—and, in fact, the color matched his heart. Percival was a black-hearted man who hated his subjects, the Pustulans, the populace of his domain; who hated his own family (he had sentenced his own mother to a minimum-security prison seven years before and he did not venture there on visiting days, never had, not once, and on the most recent Father's Day he had given his aged father a tarantula); and who, in truth, hated everyone but himself.Quite the romantic, Percival figures that he and Princess Patricia Priscilla will be a good match because they both have a lot of P's in their names.
I'll leave it to you to discover the third, or rather third and fourth suitors, for yourselves. Suffice it to say that you wouldn't want your daughter to go on a date with any of these guys, let alone marry one of them.
But the princess has found a way to distract herself from the upcoming ball, as well as from her everyday ennui. She trades clothes with her maid and sneaks out to go to school in the village, calling herself simply "Pat." There she notices that the young schoolmaster is rather appealing. (I was happy to see that school and reading are presented as privileges in this book.)
The Birthday Ball represents a departure from double Newbery winner Lowry's dystopian works for older readers. Turns out Lowry can write comic fantasy, although I'll admit I was on the alert for social satire at the very least. I did find it, but more than anything, this book is just a rollicking, goofy read.
Lowry has fun with fantasy tropes, let alone plain old human nature. For example, Patricia may have changed her clothes, but she has no idea how to act like a commoner and puzzles everyone she meets with her strange pronouncements, all the while thinking to herself that she's pulling it off just fine.
We also get three singing servant girls, the princess's spoiled cat, and a romance between Patricia's maid and the pulley boy. Not to mention a king who collects butterflies and a nice nod to Lewis Carroll.
At 186 pages, The Birthday Ball isn't a very long book, but that should add to its appeal for reluctant readers. It is such an absurdly delicious read, with little surprises tucked in among the well-chosen fairy tale tropes, that I can recommend it to readers of Dahl and fairy tales and everything in between.
Note for Worried Parents: The Birthday Ball is middle grade fiction. There's a little mild bathroom talk from some of the princes, who are meant to be repulsive.
FYI: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program. The Birthday Ball will be available on April 12th.