Eleven year-old Maria Foster talks to inanimate objects. She has conversations with cats and trees, too. It is clear she is curious and smart and the conversations she begins with her parents, based on what she has observed in the world or something she read leave them bewildered, as if they just don’t know what to do with a girl so serious and deep. So only-child Maria has created a world where objects listen and engage, give her advice and solace in ways her family cannot.
We meet the Foster family on their summer holiday to Lyme Regis. They are staying in an old Victorian house for a month. It has a resident cat, furniture that has seen decades of wear and an old tree in the backyard perfect for Maria to sit in and ponder. Next door is a small hotel where families of holiday makers are spending the summer and from her perch she notices one particular family with one particular boy. Once they meet Maria and Martin, after some initial hesitation, find in each other kindred spirits interested in the larger questions of life. They roam the hills and beaches picking up fossils, observing the varied geology of the land, which leads to a discussion of evolution when they visit a nearby museum.
In a complementary story line, Maria has become obsessed with a girl her age named Harriet who lived in the house Maria’s family is renting a hundred years ago. A photograph of a piece of Harriet’s embroidery with an ominous signature has captured Maria’s imagination. She is convinced Harriet died young and is determined to find out her story. She keeps most of her thoughts to herself until she makes a small attempt to share them with Martin. Mostly, though, she is content to have found an exploring buddy who shares her new found interests in the fossils and geology of the hills and cliffs they wander.
There are wonderful supernatural elements in the story that affect only Maria besides the cat, the petrol pump and the tree that she has conversations with: there is an insistent sound of a barking dog and the creaking noise of a swing in motion. Maria scours the neighborhood for physical evidence of these to no avail and as this part of the story unfolds they play an important part in the mystery of Harriet.
As Maria explores both her inner and outer worlds she grows in confidence and acceptance of herself and can acknowledge that what she thinks about and what interests her are genuine and noble. She has become communicative and expressive with her mother who is finally able to see and understand this daughter who had always seemed so shut up within herself.
A really wonderful book about a smart, serious, curious kind of girl that should be celebrated!
The cat sat down beside her, disposed, it seemed, for a chat.
“No,” said Maria, “I don’t think I’m going to let you talk any more. Sometimes you say uncomfortable things. Though actually I think I am getting a bit better at not being made uncomfortable.”
“P’raps” said Maria, “they turn into the kind of people they are because the things that happen to them make them like that.” Like I’m shy and I talk to myself because of the sort of family I live with and Martin’s like he is because he’s got a different kind of family.
“You are a bit peculiar sometimes,” [Martin] added, “You were talking to that tree yesterday. I heard. You were sitting in it and you suddenly said, ‘Oh, Quercus ilex…'”
Title: A Stitch in Time
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Device: Trade Paperback