This autobiographical sketch explains quite a lot about the aplomb with which Lowry parodies the many familiar plots, characters and tropes of classic children’s literature. Being familiar with so many of our childhood favorites, she has borrowed the horrible parents, abandoned babies, kindly nannies, lonely candy-makers—and most importantly, the unbelievably resourceful, clever children—with hilarious results. She has reinvented the plot, though, in order to emphasize the somewhat incredible devices which usually drive the story in children’s fiction: her child protagonists actively want to do away with their parents so that they can become orphans. Meanwhile, their parents are openly trying to ditch their children, so the novel becomes something of a competition to see which group will outlast the other and achieve their own happy ending.
All these elements of parody are presented so directly as tropes of literature that The Willoughbys qualifies as a skillful work of metafiction, a type of writing that self-consciously addresses literary devices and attempts to expose the illusion of fiction. Not all metafictional narration is meant to be humorous, but Lowry creates a self-conscious parody that will entertain both children and adult readers who are familiar with various classics, nodding many times to those in her audience who are well-read:
“I think this would be easier if we were modern children,” Tim said, “but we are old-fashioned. So our choices are limited. Jane?”
“Yes?” Jane asked. She was on the floor, playing with the cat again.
“I think you must develop a lingering disease and waste away, eventually dying a slow and painless death. We will all gather around your deathbed and you can murmur your last words. Like Beth in Little Women.”
Jane scowled. “I don’t want to,” she said.
“Old-fashioned children do not have allergies,” Tim announced. “If you don’t like the running-away-to-the-circus idea, then you can build a raft and sail down the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn.”
“We can’t swim!” the twins wailed.
“Oh, no, [Nanny] is an old-fashioned person. A spinster of little means,” Tim explained. “Well educated and of good reputation, but forced to go into domestic service because her father died in debt and left her penniless.”
Commander Melanoff sighed. “A familiar story. Like Jane Eyre. Well,” he said, “let us hope that like most old-fashioned stories, this one will have a happy ending.”
And so it is—the four Willoughby children, the abandoned baby in a wicker basket, the kindly nanny, the Swiss postmaster, the lonely old candy-maker and his missing son all find happiness at the end of the story. There is even an epilogue that explains who grew up to be lawyers, businessmen and feminist literature professors. But lest you think that I’ve just ruined the story for you, rest assured that the enjoyment of reading this novel is not to be found in uncovering the story for yourself. When reading The Willoughbys, the chief pleasure is in sharing the joke—understanding the unlikely nature of our own beloved childhood classics and enjoying the way that Lowry has stretched these familiar characters and stories to new and ridiculous proportions. Some have compared Lowry’s novel to A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I never took to those novels and so while the tone is somewhat similar, I think Lowry’s book is even better than Lemony Snicket’s series. When reading The Willoughbys, I laughed until I had tears in my eyes and I am sure that other readers will find this book utterly hilarious as well.