Recognizing in their lives a certain archaic narrative quality, one of the Willoughby twins asks, “Shouldn’t we be orphans?” (28). Deciding in the affirmative, the four siblings set out to improve their existence by ridding themselves of their truly abhorrent, neglectful if not abusive, parents. This could be handled poorly, or even excessively—imagine Roald Dahl—but in Lowry’s capable hands the story seems almost parochial, which of course adds intensely to the ironic humour she creates.
“Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author” (cover), The Willoughbys is quite a departure from Lowry’s usual tone. It is primarily a spoof of Victorian “orphan-and-benefactor” novels, with a metafictional tendency to have the characters comment how their lives are like The Secret Garden, or Great Expectations, or Mary Poppins… only to be disabused of that belief by other characters. The tongue-in-cheek intertextuality requires a bit of literary experience on the part of the reader, but even without that, the novel is great fun. “Lemony Snicket meets L. M. Montgomery” is the overall effect; the characters are manipulated into happiness very tidily, if predictably, and the reader is satisfied with both the journey and the arrival.