“Far Far Away” by Tom McNeal is a fairy tale story contained in a fairy tale story. It’s a story with many paradoxes, a story that begins slowly and gains momentum and speed, like a fast-flying freight train. And it’s a story with a very satisfying, practically perfect ending.
The narrator is a ghost — the ghost of Jacob Grimm, to be exact. That’s the Jacob Grimm of fairy tale legend, who knew many languages, suffered many disappointments in his life, and then suffered an even larger one (in this wonderful book, anyway) after he died and realized that he was left to wander the earth in search of some elusive thing that would allow him to move on.
Grimm ends up here as protector, or companion, of Jeremy. Jeremy’s life, like Jacob’s, has seen much disappointment. His mother disappeared, which caused his father to take to his bed and never leave their home, which is located in their bookstore. When his much-loved grandfather died, he left the bookstore to Jeremy.
Jeremy and his father live above the bookstore, aptly named “The Two-Book Bookstore,” because its total contents are two books, volumes one and two of an autobiography written by Jeremy’s grandfather. Not surprisingly, the bookstore is not a successful one.
The story told by Jacob is at once a romance, a thriller, and a horror story. Ginger, a girl who falls for Jeremy while eating the first bite of a Prince Cake, is at first an unlikely love interest. That cake is a maybe-magical delectable dessert created by the jolly baker, Mr. Blix, only on special occasions when green smoke rises from his bakery. Legend is that one will fall in love with the first person he or she lays eyes on while taking a first bite of the Prince Cake. Jeremy suspects that his mother was taking a bite of just such a cake when she laid eyes on an out-of-towner and left with that man.
There is also a mystery contained in the story. Jacob has been told by other ghosts, or lonely souls, that living in the small town of Never Better is a boy who can hear ghosts — that’s Jeremy — and also a Finder of Occasions, a mystery figure who waits for the opportunity to perform evil deeds.
And finally, there is indeed the horror story of what happens to Jeremy and two others when they are in the clutches of the Finder of Occasions. Is it possible that a ghost with no corporeal presence can help rescue them from death? For death is a constant in the book. Even the illustrations depict a spectral skeleton taking a child with him on his journey away from the living.
Yet within the macabre, there are also generous doses of love, devotion, and perseverance. McNeal seems to enjoy raising the hopes of the reader (Yes! Jeremy’s home will be saved. HE will be saved!), and then dashing them to pieces on the rocky buttes that surround the little town of Never Better.
The characters are as delectable as the treats that come out of the baker’s oven. Jeremy is torn between allowing Jacob to help him (with his studies) and feeling like it’s cheating. He is also tempted by Ginger to misbehave, and in typical teenager fashion, he can’t resist participating in whatever madcap idea she has, in spite of Jacob’s pleas and exhortations to the contrary.
Ginger is another complex character. Raised by an uncaring grandfather, she is sassy and disrespectful, but devout (she prays often). The boy who adores her, the mayor’s son, Conk, grows as a character throughout the book, as do Ginger and Jeremy.
Perhaps the best character is the Finder of Occasions. When the reader finally meets him, he is chilling because of his impenetrable mask — the persona he adopts so that no one will suspect his true identity.
“Far Far Away” is a story that will surely be enjoyed by adults and those over the age of fourteen.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Knopf Books for Young Readers, for review purposes.
Follow the National Book Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.
If you would like to continue receiving book reviews, including information about author appearances, author interviews and giveaways, please click the “Subscribe” icon. It’s free and anonymous. Thank you for reading, and thank you for sharing this article with others.