[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
In 2005, fifteen years after penning the fifth Vesper Holly book, Lloyd Alexander concluded the series with The Xanadu Adventure. Vesper’s first-generation fans were grown by then, many with kids of their own, but Alexander gave them a book that respects their maturity—a book that, like the 2002 novel The Rope Trick, is friendly to children but feels written for wistful adults.
Although fifteen years passed in the real world, Alexander starts The Xanadu Adventure just months after The Philadelphia Adventure. It’s still 1876, and our narrator, Professor Brinton Garrett, remains vexed by a cloying houseguest, the rambunctious young scholar he nicknames “The Weed.” Readers of the Vesper Holly books long ago learned not to trust their well-meaning but stuffy narrator, but Alexander implies far more than familiar humor when “Brinnie” fails to apprehend the way 20-year-old Vesper beams at the boy.
At first, no crisis drives The Xanadu Adventure. The whole gang—Vesper, The Weed, Brinton Garrett, and the professor’s wife, Mary—sail to the Mediterranean to indulge their various interests: Minoan inscriptions, Etruscan history, sightseeing in Turkey and Greece. Unsurprisingly, the Rasputin of this series, Dr. Desmond Helvetius, resurfaces, undiminished in his ruthlessness. As one of Vesper’s new friends, a Romanian archaeologist, exclaims: “He assaulted me! With a violence I thought existed only in the realms of higher education.”
Although Helvetius isn’t a substantive character even after six books, his schemes grow ever funnier. From his newly constructed Xanadu in Asia Minor, he plots to usurp the Ottoman Empire and monopolize the world petroleum supply to build a terrible new explosive, the humbly named “Helvolene.” He’s also keen to discredit Heinrich Schliemann‘s claim to unearthing “Troy”—and, in his most dastardly plan of all, he intends to sit down and compose a proper ending to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” (“I could not allow this to pass unchallenged,” insists Brinnie Garrett, outraged.)
Throughout The Xanadu Adventure, Alexander foregrounds this sort of eye-twinkling wit. As our heroes escape Xanadu through an air duct, Brinnie and Vesper share what could be their final moments. Their exchange is the banter of dear friends:
“Dear girl,” I said, as Vesper prepared for her turn, “should aught go amiss, if we are doomed to fail, one day we all shall meet in a brighter, happier place.”
“Philadelphia?” she said.
Alexander wrote only one more novel after The Xanadu Adventure, and this final Vesper Holly book, with its wistful dedication—”for adventurers, home at last”—is steeped with a pensive sense of endings. Without spoiling the book, I’ll say only that at 81, Alexander lends a very convincing voice to an aging narrator who helplessly watches his beloved ward become an adult and move on with her life.
The Xanadu Adventure abounds with references to classical literature and Shakespeare that promise a celebratory, comic ending, but misleadingly; this is still, in part, a novel about aging by an old man who survived war and mourned the loss of loved ones. One Amazon reviewer gripes that at the end of this book, Vesper Holly’s life suddenly moves at breakneck speed, without discussion or reflection, but perhaps that’s how the world seemed to an elderly Lloyd Alexander. I suspect he came back to the Vesper Holly series not only to conclude it, but also to point out that genuine endings are bittersweet in ways that children may yet comprehend.