Not-so-Captivating Classics: Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil (1952)
Red Sails to Capri was published in '52, won a Newbery Honor, and I guess that's why it ended up in St. Nick's curriculum. Or maybe the sheer drudgery made it adequate school reading?
But I'm being unfair. It's a book for younger readers, so it can't be too breath-holding (or so I've heard, which is totally false), and while I'm none too fond of it as a whole, there are many things to appreciate.
It's the story of Michele Pagano's adventure with three foreign guests at his family's inn. Together they search for the truth about the mysterious cove, an inlet and cave that has terrified the village of Capri for generations. The book is incredibly fun to read aloud. Each character has a unique voice that simply sings with authenticity and life. I got to read adventure-loving Monsieur Jacques with a terrible French accent, and the artist Lord Derby with an even worse English one. I didn't so much as attempt German for philosopher Herre Nordstrom, but read Signor and Signora Pagano's lines with a rolling Italian lilt. Or so I like to tell myself. Probably they all sounded like a Midwesterner faking an undisclosed accent badly. I tried, and I had fun.
And by chapter nine, my son was having fun, too! The cove! What is so mysterious about the cove? Unfortunately, to get to chapter nine, we had to slog through chapters one through eight, and after chapter nine, we had only chapter ten and then the book was finished.
In short, despite lovely writing, fabulous voices, vivid details, on and on, the book had very little plot. Boy has to entertain guests at the inn, guests want adventure, boy knows the cove is scary and adventuresome, but doesn't know why, no one knows why, so off they go to investigate and by golly, the cove is just ... ah, but that would be spoiling it, now wouldn't it? And that could have been accomplished in, oh, two chapters perhaps? Instead of ten? Because, see, nothing else happens. There's no subplot, nothing to drive the story forward beyond, "what's so scary about the cove?" which, honestly, wasn't enough to drive anything, beyond a mother and son slightly bug-eyed with boredom.