An Unwelcome Cameo in My Comfort Reading

I picked up Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, a young adult novel published in 2005, because it looked like a relatively light read at a time when I want my reading to counter the overwhelming sense of doom I feel every time I think about reality. 2017 blows, a virtually ubiquitous feeling the publishing industry is trying to capitalize off of by churning out “Up Lit.” According to The Guardian:

In contrast with the “grip lit” thrillers that were the market leaders until recently, more and more bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood. And an appetite for everyday heroism, human connection and love – rather than romance – is expected to be keeping booksellers and publishers uplifted, too.

Johnson’s novel isn’t a new publication, but I’d say it’s the kind of upbeat read many of us are looking for these days. It takes grim circumstances, the recent death of 17-year-old Ginny Blackstone’s aunt, and turns it into a mildly entertaining story that takes our main character from the United States to several European countries.

The novel starts with a letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, asking to play one final game, a scavenger hunt. So far, so good.

However, a few pages later, in a section about Aunt Peg’s background, this happens:

[Aunt Peg] answered phones as a temp at Trump headquarters until she happened to take a call from Donald himself. She thought it was one of her actor friends pretending to be Donald Trump–so she immediately launched into a tirade on ‘scumbag capitalists with bad toupees.’

I read fiction to escape from this man. What the hell is he doing in this book? I don’t want to see any references to him, not even negative ones, in my comfort reading.

But I continued to read the book, doing by my best to ignore a later reference to someone eating steak with ketchup, an unusual combination that just happens to be Trump’s favorite meal.

Overall, I enjoyed 13 Little Blue Envelopes for its scenery, the descriptions of each of the places Ginny visits. For example:

Travestere couldn’t be a real place. It looked like Disney had attacked a corner of Rome with leftover pastel paint and created the coziest, most picturesque neighborhood ever. It seemed to consist entirely of nooks. There were shutters on the windows, overflowing window boxes, hand-lettered signs that were fading perfectly. There were wash lines hung from building to building, draped with white sheets and shirts. All around her were people with cameras, photographing the wash.

Ginny would never have seen Travestere if it weren’t for Aunt Peg’s decision to coax her out of her shell. Ginny doesn’t have much of a personality. It’s her aunt who fuels this story by controlling her niece’s life for a couple of weeks from beyond the grave. At times, I found myself irritated by Aunt Peg’s demands, particularly the ones that placed Ginny in unsafe situations, but I tried not to dwell on it too much. I don’t want to dwell on anything too much these days. That’s the only way to get through the next few years.


  1. I completely related with that Guardian article and am definitely reading to escape current events these days, but I’ve also had an unpleasant, accidental encounter with Trump in my reading. I think he popped up in a history book I was reading that was talking about people buying up land or something. Whatever it was, I shared your feeling of just not wanting him to be part of my reading.

  2. Oh man, I would be jarred by that reference too! I’ve read one book by Johnson and enjoyed it a lot. It was the first in the Shades of London series called The Name of the Star. It was a YA supernatural mystery, not my usual fare, but it was really well done! I follow her on Twitter (currently I’m taking a Twitter break, too much for me right now) and she’s very funny there. I’ll have to try this one sometime.

  3. I read 13 Little Blue Envelopes long ago (before the time of Trump, or at least before I’d heard of him) and I found it one of those books that stuck in my head. Far from the thrillers that have been so popular over the last few years, books about family truths and human connections are the ones that have remained with me as I’ve grown up. Have you ever read anything by Jenny Valentine?

    1. I’m glad to hear this is one of those books that stuck with you. I was wondering how someone from your side of the pond would feel about it (whether Johnson’s descriptions of England and other European locations felt authentic). I loved the scenery. I haven’t read anything by Jenny Valentine, but I’ll look out for her books. Thanks!

  4. I feel very strange about people who are now deceased making requests to those who are still alive. What if the request is untimely, expensive, scary, dangerous, etc? But the living person left behind “has” to do what they’re instructed to do because otherwise they are selfish, mean, aren’t grieving properly, etc. according to others.

    1. Agreed! I wrote about restrictive conditional bequests as a plot device in fiction way back in 2012 (“Sweet Tea and Secrets: Meddling From Beyond the Grave,” Coincidentally, my current WIP (the one I’m writing on my own, not the one I’m writing with my kids), revolves around a restrictive conditional bequest in a will. So, I’ve been brushing up on the subject lately!

      1. This topic is very interesting to me as I was the recipient of a restrictive conditional bequest. Elements of it surely turned out differently than my relative had intended, and it was not as smooth as we all anticipated, but I’m so grateful anyway. However in my case I was offered the bequest and told the conditions well in advance of my relative passing, and I agreed to the terms. In literature these sorts of bequests always seem to be a surprise!

        1. I’m glad it worked out for you! It makes much more sense to have everyone aware of the provisions ahead of time, but it makes for better “drama” in fiction when it’s a surprise.

  5. Oy! I feel like Trump and the current administration are already in my face night and day! I work at a hospital and the older folks ALWAYS want to discuss Trump — I try, when handling my patients, to casually swing by these statements and change the topic. I’m glad he hasn’t made any cameos in books ive read lately, but ive picked some pretty old books (Man in the High Castle was my last read)

  6. What a jarring and weird thing to find Trump suddenly walking into your book! I had a similar experience, although the context didn’t bother me as much. I was reading “Behold the Dreamers” (jumped on the holds queue at the library before the rest of my neighborhood found out it was the next Oprah pick) and one of the characters is working toward a goal of becoming a pharmacist. While the character is out celebrating an academic achievement, another character tells her that when she finishes pharmacy school, he is going to take her to Trump Tower and hire Donald to cook their dinner. I actually liked the visual of Trump cooking for a group of African immigrants. (The world would be a much better place if that was a thing that actually happened…)

  7. I can relate to your depression over current events. It’s difficult for me to do anything creative or constructive lately, given the dark cloud in Washington. I’ve been re-reading books by favorite authors–anything that will let me escape for a few hours. Can I offer a recommendation? Try this historical page-turner. I was extremely lucky to pick it up for free a couple weeks ago, and I sadly notice the price is now $12.99, but it’s extremely good. The writing is solid, as is the editing, and the story will keep you riveted. Famous eccentric Nikola Tesla is only one of the fascinating characters. Telephone inventor Bell makes an appearance, as does George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. I loved this book, and I don’t say that about many these days.

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