Under the Egg

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Dial, 2014

247 pages

I love literary serendipity.

A couple of years ago, while my husband was out of town one week, I watched a documentary called The Rape of Europa. It was my first encounter with the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) military section, and I was riveted. Later, wanting to learn more, I read Robert M. Edsel’s very long but also very interesting book on the topic.

Last summer’s mediocre–and not entirely historically accurate–George Clooney movie somewhat popularized the story, but here are the basics, in case you haven’t heard.

The MFAA consisted of British and American arts experts (both men and women) who embedded with Allied troops in Europe during World War II. The group’s initial mandate was to identify and protect significant cultural sites from being destroyed by war operations and combat. Over time, the mandate expanded to include the identification, recovery, and return of millions of artworks the Nazis had looted from exiled or murdered Jewish families, museums, and churches. My favorite part of the story concerned Rose Valland, a Paris museum volunteer who risked her life to hide and rescue tends of thousands of artworks from the Nazis.

I finished reading Edsel’s book in July. Three months later, I picked up Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg–and serendipity happened.

I chose Under the Egg after reading that it was a brainy mystery with a strong female lead. The book satisfied on both those counts, but (even better) it also turned out to be historical fiction about the MFAA.

In Under the Egg, 13-year-old Theodora Tenpenny must figure out how to support herself and her mentally ill mother when her grandfather dies unexpectedly, leaving behind only $463 and instructions to look “under the egg.”

Theodora eventually connects these cryptic last words with a large painting of an egg that sits over the mantel in her grandfather’s art studio. After accidentally spilling rubbing alcohol on the painting, Theodora discovers that it hides an Old Masters-style Madonna and Child.

She suspects that this hidden painting is a lost Raphael and sets out to determine why and how it came to be in her grandfather’s possession. In the process, she discovers that, like the painting, her grandfather was not what he seemed.

He had not, as he told her, sat out World War II because of poor health. Instead, he had served at D-Day, suffered in a German POW camp, and then served in the MFAA. And Theodora is only able to solve the mystery of the painting (and what her grandfather’s last words really meant) once she solves the mystery of what happened to her grandfather during his stay in the POW camp and his term as a Monuments Man.

I’ll be honest: this book is a little more uneven than those I usually review here. I was a bit bothered by some of the liberties Fitzgerald took with MFAA history. Characterization fell flat in some places, and the plot took a few deus-ex-machina-style turns, particularly at the end.

But the overall story was so engaging, the premise so unique, and Theodora such an inspiring heroine, that I couldn’t let it go.

Theodora’s situation is staggeringly difficult. Her grandfather’s death leaves her as caretaker for a mother and a house that are both falling part. Theodora’s clothes are likewise disintegrating, and all she and her mother have to eat are a few eggs and a handful of beans and vegetables harvested from their backyard each day.

Really, Theodora needs to ask for help, but she’s held back by the near-pathological self-reliance her grandfather taught her. The way she slowly opens up to the world, while building her courage and using her intelligence to solve the mystery, is what inspired me.

She’s one of those heroines who speaks to me not because she has it all together, but precisely because she doesn’t. She feels exasperating and real in her flaws. I can see myself in her failings.

But she grows. She recognizes her need to connect and pushes herself, however slowly and gradually, out of her own comfort zone. And in the midst of horrible circumstances, she remains positive and confident that she will, eventually, work it all out.

In short, she’s courageous, in a real-life maybe-I-could-do-that kind of way. When the book is over, her story continues in my head–she stays with me, reminding me to let others love and help me as I go about the challenges of my own life. It’s a lesson I’ve sorely needed to learn over the last several years, and I’m thankful Under the Egg reinforced it for me.

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