Julieta and the Diamond Enigma

PREPARE YOURSELVES! I am about to review a book! I know, I know it’s been a while.

But, look, we all know times have been hard. How do you find a book which gives you respite from the urgency of our times without minimizing real issues?

Well, I found one. I didn’t mean to. I’ll be honest: I read Julieta and the Diamond Enigma for one simple reason– the author, Luisana Duarte Armendáriz, is a book shop friend. (And if you are buying in Brookline, call The Children’s Book Shop to arrange pickup, and ask if they have any signed bookplates left! They’re adorable, and it was sweet of Luisana to send them to the shop.)

So, when I heard she had a book coming out, I was very keen to see what she wrote, and my buddies at the book shop kindly saved me a copy (WITH a signed bookplate, since Luisana couldn’t come back to sign for us, thanks to Covid) and I read it this past weekend.

It was one of those bizarre situations where someone wrote exactly what I needed now, but, of course, how could Luisana have anticipated this moment when she was writing?

I want to travel to Paris now. But I can’t. So she wrote a book about a girl’s first trip to Paris. I miss museums now. But they’re closed. Luisana wrote about museums. I’m thinking about issues of provenance and appropriation right now, but I honestly can’t cope with even one more serious, thoughtful article. Luisana shows her young protagonist, Julieta, encountering those issues in a quiet but nuanced way appropriate to a young kid. It’s exactly, spot-on right for this moment. And, additionally, it’s all couched in the story of a happy, loving family with an amazing relationship between parents and their daughter as they expect a new little one.

You’re probably patiently waiting for me to give you some sense of what goes on in the book? Julieta (it “sounds like the hooting of an owl. Like whoooo-lieta“) gets to go with her dad, who works for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to the Louvre in Paris to inspect and bring back objects for an exhibit to take place at the MFA. She’s excited to travel, and she loves museums and new experiences, but she’s also excited to get home in time for the birth of her new baby brother. Their carefully formulated plans are upset, however, when the Regent Diamond is stolen on her father’s watch– and he might have to take the blame. (Note: because this book is full of art pieces and history, the novel is followed by excellent, reader-friendly materials on every piece of art and every museum mentioned. It also includes a glossary at the back and a language guide at the beginning, to terms in both Spanish and French. This is a very carefully designed book.)

It’s a story of art theft and adventure, with a lovable, impulsive, cheerful character in Julieta. Reading through her eyes, I got the joy of visiting Paris for the first time again: the bustle and crowds, the food (Julieta decides to call her pain au chocolat a “chocolate-stuffed delight,” a feeling with which every child and many adults will sympathize!), and, of course, the museums. I felt a bit wistful that poor Julieta never got to my absolute, bar-none favourite museum in the whole world: Cluny. I’m sure she would have loved the tapestries! (Luisana, please see to it that on a future trip she gets there, OK?)

But I think, in everything, in the whirl of adventure and new ideas and thoughts, what I loved best was the rock-hard reliance on loving family. Julieta knows that her parents love her. Yes, she’s impulsive, yes, she worries about what they will feel when she thinks she’s let them down, but it’s all because she loves them so much– and she knows they love her, too. It’s a bit like Ramona, but a Ramona who’s obsessed with mythology and art, so I totally identify with Julieta. I found it deeply meaningful to find a book in quarantine that represented the kind of family relationship I strive for: where everyone is wholly their own person, but we can all lean on each other for support at every moment of the way through life.

I really, truly enjoyed sinking into this novel for a few hours on Shabbat. It was fun, it felt light and easy (a sure-fire sign that it must have taken a lot of work, in my experience), but at the same time it was replete with thought and nuance. The only bad bit was that it made me want to grab my own girl and hop on a plane to Paris right away! Instead, I think I’ll casually drop this book on her bed before she goes to bed at night… and just face the fact that in the morning she’ll still be reading. And then we’ll browse museum websites together and plan our journey!

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