6 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

Title: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Author: Reif Larsen

Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult

Publisher: Penguin Press HC
Publication date: May 7th 2009
Hardcover: 375 pages

When twelve-year-old genius cartographer T.S. Spivet receives an unexpected phone call from the Smithsonian announcing he has won the prestigious Baird Award, life as normal-if you consider mapping family dinner table conversation normal-is interrupted and a wild cross-country adventure begins, taking T.S. from his family ranch just north of Divide, Montana, to the museum’s hallowed halls.

T.S. sets out alone, leaving before dawn with a plan to hop a freight train and hobo east. Once aboard, his adventures step into high gear and he meticulously maps, charts, and illustrates his exploits, documenting mythical wormholes in the Midwest, the urban phenomenon of “rims,” and the pleasures of McDonald’s, among other things. We come to see the world through T.S.’s eyes and in his thorough investigation of the outside world he also reveals himself.

As he travels away from the ranch and his family we learn how the journey also brings him closer to home. A secret family history found within his luggage tells the story of T.S.’s ancestors and their long-ago passage west, offering profound insight into the family he left behind and his role within it. As T.S. reads he discovers the sometimes shadowy boundary between fact and fiction and realizes that, for all his analytical rigor, the world around him is a mystery.

All that he has learned is tested when he arrives at the capital to claim his prize and is welcomed into science’s inner circle. For all its shine, fame seems more highly valued than ideas in this new world and friends are hard to find.

T.S.’s trip begins at the Copper Top Ranch and the last known place he stands is Washington, D.C., but his journey’s movement is far harder to track: How do you map the delicate lessons learned about family and self? How do you depict how it feels to first venture out on your own? Is there a definitive way to communicate the ebbs and tides of heartbreak, loss, loneliness, love? These are the questions that strike at the core of this very special debut.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: A few months ago, I went to Foyles with Meghan from Medieval Bookworm and she pointed this book to me and said it was great. It looked awesome so I bought it on the spot. Here comes the twist though: my partner, who doesn’t really read at all, picked this book up on a whim, loved it which is what made me eventually pick it up.


Tecumseh Sparrow (T.S.) Spivet is the narrator of this story, the unlikely prodigy child of a Montana rancher (the father) and a brilliant yet failed scientist (the mother). At 12, he is already a budding scientist interested in anatomy and entomology (just to name a couple) and an accomplished mapmaker. It is the latter that end up helping him to be granted an award from the Smithsonian Institution . The story opens with the phone call from another scientist linked to the Smithsonian (who believes T.S. to be an adult) who invites him to give a talk at the Institution. This precipitates the actual plot which involves T.S. running away from home, embarking on a journey to the East by hoboing his way through America.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a complicated book to read and this is going to be a complicated review to write. Perhaps the best word to describe it would be “extravagant”. To start with, there is the format of the book itself. It is an oversized book, and the margins have been expanded to include side explanations, musings, drawings, sketches, anything really, that T.S. deems necessary to complement the story. These are often cool, interesting additions which go beyond merely complementing the story because a lot of the time, these offer a portrayal of his real emotional state. It is actually after reading the first examples of these extra bits that one comes to realise that T.S. might be precocious but he is still a child nonetheless. The extravagance here arises from the fact that these extra things are present in nearly every page of this book and since they must be read, as they contain essential elements to the story, sometimes reading the book was an exhausting endeavour. In fact, it took me over 3 months to get through merely 390 pages because I felt I could only read a handful of pages at a time. Despite that, I didn’t think this to be gimmicky and actually really enjoyed this aspect of the book.

Exhibit A: a typical page of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Then there is the premise – T.S. is preposterously precocious and his brilliance at only 12 is almost too hard to believe. Major points to the author then that this is not really a problem and T.S. ,as a character, is quite possibly the best thing about the book – he is charming, funny, creative and even, endearing. His tendency to map the world and everything about it determines his basic personality: he likes order, he likes everything to be clear, he likes to explain away the things that he is perhaps too young to understand and grasp. He maps everything: his environment, books, the people he knows and how they act. As a reflection of his mental state, he actually believes that those are already pre-determined maps inside. It is perhaps easier to believe that than to accept that there is no pre-determination (even though there is very little science in thoughts like these).

Do you ever get the feeling like you already know the entire contents of the universe somewhere inside of your head, as if you were born with a complete map of this world already grafted onto the folds of your cerebellum and you are just spending your entire life figuring out how to access this map?

Exhibit B: a typical example of a Spivetism.

Which brings me to the plot. The book is divided in three parts: part 1 is an introduction to T.S. and his dysfunctional family of ostensibly emotionless parents in the aftermath of a family tragedy that nobody talks about: the death of his younger brother (their father’s favourite) in an accident for which T.S. feel partially responsible for. This is where he dwells on trying to decide whether he will go to Washington or not, eventually deciding to leave. This part is my favourite: it was brilliantly done, I loved the themes brought up here, including the differences between the parents, the fact that T.S. feels detached from his father and more attached to his scientist mother at the same time that is completely frustrated by what he feels is her failure to be a successful scientist.

This part is followed by Spivet’s journey to the East. He is mostly alone for the entirety of the journey except by some conversations with other hobos and a couple of scary confrontations with strangers – one of them quite serious. There is a marked difference in tone between part 1 and 2. Not only there is an element of magical realism in part 2 that was not present at all in part 1, there is also the fact that most of the narrative is taken over by his mother’s journal entries depicting the life of an ancestor, one of the first females cartographers. Whereas I was not a fan of the former because it felt so out of place in this novel, the latter was fascinating – not only in itself but also in the way that it depicts another side of his mother. This part basically ends in a most surreal scene (the aforementioned confrontation) that I felt has very little repercussions to the overall story and which made me wonder whether I was reading something else entirely, like a Science Fiction novel featuring wormholes or something. It got to a point where I was hoping T.S. was in fact dreaming or dead or… well, you get the picture.

That sense of surrealism never leaves the pages once we reach part 3 and T.S. experiences Washington. And here is where the book truly falters, where extravagance meets ludicrous. There is not only the Smithsonian complete unbelievable exploitation of this kid but also totally ridiculous sinister underground plots that make no sense in the context of the story told till them plus a certain amount of laughable revelations. Not to mention the foolish “exposé” of the evil East as opposed to the naïve and good West.

Exhibit C: the first part has many earmarked pages. Note that parts 2 and 3 have none.

And here is the main problem of this novel: those three parts are so disjointed, the overall feeling is that I read three different books. The first was excellent. The second was good. The third, so bad it hurt. It is an extremely irregular novel with far too many ideas that were not executed into a coherent whole. It is a shame because the beginning was amazingly full of potential which just made for a very frustrating read as the story progressed into the mess it became. Still, there is a little of emotional pay-off in the end between T.S. and his parents which was the one thing that kept the book from hitting the walls of my bedroom.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:

The phone call came late one August afternoon as my older sister Gracie and I sat out on the back porch shucking the sweet corn into the big tin buckets. The buckets were still peppered with little teeth-marks from this past spring, when Verywell, our ranch hound, became depressed and turned to eating metal.

Perhaps I should clarify. When I say that Gracie and I were shucking the sweet corn, what I actually mean is that Gracie was shucking the corn and I was drawing a diagrammatic map in one of my little blue spiral notebooks of precisely how she was shucking the corn.

All of my notebooks were color-coded. The blue notebooks that neatly lined the south wall of my room were reserved for “Maps of People Doing Things,” as opposed to the green notebooks on the east wall, which contained zoological, geological, and topographical maps, or the red notebooks on the west wall, which was where I mapped out insect anatomy in case my mother, Dr. Clair Linneaker Spivet, ever called upon my services.

I had once tried lining maps on the south wall of my room, but in my excitement to organize, I briefly forgot that this was where the entrance to my room was located, and when Dr. Clair opened the door to announce that dinner was ready, the bookshelf fell on my head.

I sat on my Lewis and Clark carpet, covered in notebooks and shelving. “Am I dead?” I asked, knowing that she would not tell me, even if I was.

“Never let your work trap you into a corner,” Dr. Clair said through the door.

Rating: 6- Good, recommended with reservations

Reading Next: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

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  • LeAnn
    November 28, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I felt the same way when I read this a couple years ago. Awesome beginning, okay middle, the end wasn’t so great. I still say it’s a good book, though, but I wish the end was a bit better. I loved all the drawings in it, though, they added so much. I could get lost in them.

  • Meghan
    November 28, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Well, I’m glad you at least enjoyed parts of it! 😛 I am glad to see you liked the bit in the middle with his mother – I loved that part, it was easily my favourite.

  • Miss K
    November 29, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Another person agreeing that the end didn’t live up to the promise of the beginning. I’m glad you included the shucking corn passage; I love that bit.

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