Home > Book Review, classic, fantasy, Genre, historic, Length - average but on the shorter side, middle grade > Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

A girl in old-fashioned clothes looks at hersself in a mirror.Summary:
When Charlotte goes away to boarding school for the first time, she’s very excited to get the bed with the particularly pretty wheels right next to the window. When she wakes up, though, the view from the window looks different, and people are calling her Clare! She discovers she’s traveled back in time to the same bed in the same boarding school, but during World War I. The next morning, though, she wakes up in the present again as Charlotte. This pattern continues, meaning both she and Clare are Charlotte….sometimes.

I picked this book up because I have an affinity for both boarding school books and time-travel books. This looked like the best of both worlds to me.  A fun middle grade book that introduces to the reader to two different past time periods–the late 1960s of Charlotte’s present and the nineteen-teens of Clare’s present.

This book is the third in a series, but it is completely possible to read it as a standalone. No mention is made of the events in the first book, and the second book is actually about what Charlotte’s little sister does while she’s away at boarding school.

The concept is intriguing, because instead of time-travel happening once and landing the person stuck in the past (or future), Charlotte keeps switching, spending every other day in the 60s and every other day in the teens. (I get a migraine when the barometric pressure changes….I can only imagine how I’d feel if I time travelled! Do you think I could bring my green lamp therapy with me?)

In addition to the usual issues time-travel books bring up, such as what stays the same and what is actually different throughout time, it also brings up the key question of identity. What makes Charlotte Charlotte? Is she still Charlotte when she’s being called Clare? Why does hardly anyone notice that Clare has changed? Or Charlotte for that matter? The book thus addresses identity issues that middle grade readers might be going through, but in a subtle way through the time-travel trope.

Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? (page 66)

The time-travel itself is left as a fantastical mystery, rather than being given a scientific explanation. There’s something magical about the bed that only makes Charlotte and Clare switch places, but no one else. This works without an explanation because the young girls being subjected to the time-travel just accept it without explanation. This is their reality, and it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, they just have to deal with it. Some readers, though, might struggle with the fact that the time-travel itself is never explained.

The one thing that disappointed me about the book, and that I think would have made it a classic and a five star read, is that the book only explores what happens to Charlotte when the girls switch places. Clare, her experiences, and her perspective are only heard about through third parties. The book, while in third person, is entirely Charlotte’s perspective. Clare, a reserved, proper girl from the nineteen-teens must have been shocked by both the technology and the mores of the 1960s she suddenly found herself in.  So much more could have been explored by telling both Charlotte’s and Clare’s story. The book misses an opportunity by only focusing on the modern day girl going back in time. The girl being thrust into the future, a future where she finds out Britain wins the war, and there is suddenly no food rationing or flu epidemic, that is such a cool story in and of itself, and Farmer just never ventures out to tell it.

Interestingly, the British band The Cure released a song called “Charlotte Sometimes” that they admitted was pulled directly from this book. Not just the title, but song lyrics are pulled from the first couple of lines of the book. Even the music video features scenes from the book. It seems to be quite a mystery who the actress was who played Charlotte in the video. She wasn’t credited, and there’s a lot of posts on the internet with people speculating about who she might be. In any case, Penelope Farmer was…not amused by the whole thing. But back to the book.

Overall, this is a book that sets up a fantastical world of time-travel within a boarding school.  It utilizes the switching of two girls with each other in time to explore questions of identity in a way that surely will appeal to many middle grade readers.  The book does not fully explore the story the way it possibly should have, but the young reader will probably enjoy filling in those gaps themselves.  Recommended to all fans of boarding school, time-travel, or historic fiction set during World War I’s homefront.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 174 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Better World Books

Buy It

Previous Books In Series:
The Summer Birds
Emma in Winter

Edit note: Thanks to Vicky for pointing out it was published in 1969. 

  1. June 5, 2014 at 6:16 am

    I hadn’t heard of this book or series before, I don’t think, although I MAY have read The China People in my distant past, I’m not sure. I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence as an adult, and enjoyed it!

    • June 5, 2014 at 8:48 am

      Yeah, I’m surprised I didn’t stumble across it as a child, because I definitely had a “read everything set in a boarding school” phase! A lot of Farmer’s works appear to be out of print now, unfortunately.

  2. Vicky S.
    May 13, 2022 at 1:33 pm

    Thank you for your review. I agree, although it’s a good story. detail about time travel (why and how?) is left unexplored. Clare, in 1918, seemed to know of/choose Charlotte for ‘time-swapping’ Some reasons for that, at the end of the book, would have, imo, made it more complete or satisfying. Clare is a ‘real’ person too(!).
    BTW, The book was first published 1969. Although schools may be old-fashioned, I don’t think the ‘modern’ time is the 1960s either, there’s no hint of mini skirts, tights, pop music, and the swinging 60s. There’s a line somewhere about Clare living ‘more than forty years ago’ and I get the feeling it was only just more than 40 years ago. This seems more likely, as Charlotte experienced things such as the effects of WW 2 and food rationing etc. This might explain why she is not that surprised at 1918’s food rationing.

    • May 14, 2022 at 9:48 am

      Thank you for your visit and comment, Vicky! I was just looking at my print copy of this book again wondering if I should hold onto it or not…still undecided.

      You’re correct it was published in 1969, which means “modern times” must be the 1960s. (I’m not sure why past me thought it was the 1970s). Food rationing post-WWII stopped in the UK in 1954, though, so that combined with Charlotte’s distress at the rationed food in Clare’s time I think makes it safe to assume she wasn’t currently experiencing it herself.

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