Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

The Blurb On The Back:

They were the Amazing Telemachus Family, who in the mid-1970s achieved widespread fame for their magic and mind reading act. That is, until the magic decided to disappear one night, live in front of millions on national television.

We encounter this long-forgotten family two decades on, when grandson Matty, born long after the public fall from grace, discovers a little magic in himself and begins to suspect his hugely deflated, heavily indebted family truly are amazing. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the summer of 1995. 14-year-old Matty Telemachus grew up listening to stories about his mother, Irene, and her amazing family – younger brothers Buddy and Frankie, mother Maureen and father Teddy. They ran a magic and psychic act that was very successful – Teddy read the contents of sealed envelopes, Maureen could see things at a distance, Irene knew if you were lying, Frankie could move things with his mind and Buddy could see the future – until their appearance on the Mike Douglas daytime show in 1972. Douglas brought on a stage magician called G Randall Archibald who debunked the tricks used by the family in their act and after that the only work they could get was the psychic missions that Maureen did on behalf of the US government as part of its Cold War activities.

Maureen died of cancer when the children were still young. Teddy now lives with Buddy in a house in the suburbs of Chicago. Frankie works as a telephone line installer and lives with his wife Loretta, their twins Cassie and Polly and 16-year-old Mary Alice (Loretta’s daughter from a previous relationship) but is heavily in debt to the local Mob following the collapse of his own business. Irene and Matty recently moved in with Teddy after Irene lost her job in Pittsburgh and Irene works as a cashier in a local mart.

Matty has always believed in his family’s powers though – he knows that there is no point in lying to his mum because she always knows when he’s telling the truth and his grandpa can tell what you’ve written on a square of paper even when you haven’t shown it to him. So when Matty discovers that he can project himself out of his body, he begins to think that maybe his future lies in the old family business. But Maureen’s old bosses in the US Government are still interested in what the Telemachus family can do for them while Teddy’s fascination with a younger woman called Graciella and Frankie’s woes with the mob are all set on a collision course that will change the fortunes of all of them forever …

Daryl Gregory’s historical fantasy novel is a whimsical, entertaining affair that has a real Wes Anderson wistful vibe to it. Although some of the plot twists are predictable, there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be had from the skill Gregory displays in unveiling them and I especially liked Irene who’s been forced to be the grown up in the family) and the troubled Buddy who is plagued by knowledge he cannot share.

Matty is a little bit stereotypical as a character – a horny teenage boy with a crush on the impossibly cool Mary Alice (who prefers to be called Malice) who accidentally discovers his powers of astral projection when masturbating. It’s through Matty that the reader learns about the family, their abilities and their fall from Grace and although some of the backstory elements are a bit clunky (e.g. the recording made from their 1972 humiliation) I thought that Gregory does a good job in showing why Matty is so fascinated by them and how seductive he finds the idea of celebrity – in part because he’s whipped up by the bitter Frankie, who has never really gotten over what happened. I did want to see more of Matty’s relationship with Irene and although Gregory shares what happened between Irene and Matty’s father, it was a little weird how Matty barely seems to think about him within the book but Matty’s relationship with Teddy kinda makes up for that as Teddy starts to take him into his confidence in the final quarter of the book.

I specifically liked the character of Irene within the book because I thought Gregory did well at conveying her resentment at having to constantly be the grown up in the family after she took responsibility for them after her mother’s death (even though she was very young herself). I also thought that Gregory does a great job at showing the problems that her gifts give her in relationships and how she’s weary of having to deal with the everyday little lies that people tell her. The scenes where she begins to explore the nascent world of internet dating, which give her the ability to talk with men without ever knowing if they’re lying to her are really well done and reveal a lot about her character and the bond she forms with single dad Joshua and how that makes her feel vulnerable is actually quite sweet and emotionally true.

Also well drawn is Buddy – the youngest of the Telemachus siblings and the World’s Most Powerful Psychic – Gregory again really nails the character’s vulnerability as he’s trapped by his visions of the future, which he knows he can’t share with the others and as a result, tries to limit how much he talks with them. The romance he experiences rings very true for the character and I really admired Gregory’s skill at laying out the DIY projects Buddy’s been carrying out in the house and how they all come together for a specific purpose.

Teddy is a bit of a central casting rogue with his fancy watches and hat and his eye on the long con. Gregory’s take on Teddy’s abilities is interesting, especially how his pride ended up being his undoing but I was never really convinced by his relationship with Maureen (in part because the reveal that Maureen’s government handler, Agent Destin Smalls, is in love with her doesn’t seem to affect him at all) while his flirtation with Graciella has a whiff of plot necessity about it while the big reveal at the end was something that I saw coming from the start. His emotional distance from his children was interesting and I wished that Gregory had explored this deeper because I did wonder whether it came from his grifting days and whether he saw his children as tools in his con or whether he actually loved them.

Gregory does a great job at keeping the multiple strands of his plot moving and I admired the way he has them cross over with each other at different times. The Mob element is entertaining and adds an element of danger (although Nick Pusateri was a little too two-dimensional for my tastes and, again, had a whiff of central casting about him) and the way Gregory brings in elements of backstory from different characters points of view (e.g. Frankie and Buddy’s trip to a riverboat casino and how it changed their relationship) is very skilful.

There’s a whimsical tone to the overall book that I found really engaging. The marketing spiel pitches it at fans of Wes Anderson and I think that’s a good comparison – there’s a definite GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL/THE ROYAL TENANBAUMS vibe to this book and for all my gripes about the characters, I did care enough about all of them to want to know what happens to them in the end and I would definitely read Gregory’s other books on the strength of this one.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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