Plot: O’Farrell's novel boasts a clever mystery plot with satisfying twists and surprises and inspired sleuthing from its heroine, twelve-year-old Simone, in a variety of appealing Parisian settings. This middle grade mystery is buoyant and inviting, but its pacing is inconsistent, and quite a few chapters pass before the plot really kicks in and Simone is tasked with outwitting Le Volpe Russo, a thief of counterfeits. The novel's structure and plotting resembles that of a later book in a series rather than the first, as Simone here already is a respected agent of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with her mother. With that status quo already established, the novel's first third offers little suspense or narrative momentum as it introduces Simone's double life, where she already knows everyone, excels at her duties, and faces little conflict.
Prose/Style: Much like the pastries and the Paris he describes, O'Farrell's prose is rich, striking, and memorable -- if occasionally a little indulgent. Simone's world is rendered with wit and vigor, and O'Farrell understands that young readers shouldn't be talked down to. He presents a clever girl's clever thoughts and lets them barrel on. Sometimes, the description becomes a little thick, as in the multi-page introduction to Simone's father's patisserie, and O'Farrell's tendency to overload dialogue tags with description slows some scene's momentum.
Originality: The setting, the characters, the witty mystery, the surprising clues -- simply put, Simone LaFray and the Chocolatiers' Ball stands alone as a young readers' novel of vigorous comic invention.
Character Development: Confident, brilliant Simone is a standout creation, a young girl so certain of her extraordinary nature that she takes pains at all times not to stand out. O'Farrell mines warm humor from the contrast between patient, observant Simone and her pastry chef father, and the story gains power and excitement when Simone's father seems to become a target of Le Volpe Russo. That's essential, because Simone starts the novel as an established spy, respected by the government, and never really has much to prove to herself or to readers. The revelation, late in the book, that she's also one of the most bewitching singers in Paris, might be one extraordinary trait too many for a relatable protagonist.
Date Submitted: July 09, 2020
As Simone narrates this story, readers will be amazed by her observational skills, which add a heavily descriptive layer to the story (“Since I was six, I could tell the handwriting and doodle marks of each inscriber”) and provide her with helpful clues. When Louie is accused of being a fraud and baking subpar pastries, Simone discovers someone laced one of their bags of sugar with salt. She becomes determined to find the culprit at the prestigious Chocolatiers’ Ball. The glamor and drama outweigh occasional errors in the non-English terminology and dialogue, and readers will forgive plot-necessary contrivances such as a famous baker never tasting his own wares.
Though Simone is bright (“Doing normal kid stuff made me twitchy,” she confesses) she prefers to be out of the spotlight. O’Farrell skillfully provides two foils: Simone’s theatrical younger sister, Mia, and her bubbly best friend, Gloria V. Cantone (known as the V). Both Mia and the V help dress Simone up for the ball, where O’Farrell reveals several twists. Some readers will wish the ball had been introduced earlier, given its prominence in the title and influence on the plot. This satisfying mystery leaves a few lingering secrets that readers will hope to explore in Simone’s next adventure.
Takeaway: Middle grade readers who love mature protagonists and vivid imagery featuring sweet treats will enjoy this spy story.
Great for fans of Stuart Gibbs’s Spy School series, Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort series.
Design and typography: A+
Marketing copy: B+