As you did, I found Far Far Away to be a very compelling read. In fact, it drew me in more than just about any book I’ve read this year. I liked the warmth and humor that permeated it, even when it turned truly, well, grim. I just opened the book at random, and found this:
“Yes, yes, all is well in Blixville,” said the baker, who seemed amused not just by the question but by all things, and why not? He was beloved in the town, and his shop was a pocket of warm benignity, as Jeremy could now see for himself. The glass-and-cherrywood cases were filled with a beautiful variety of breads and cakes, two small tables were brightened by vases of flowers, and the rich scents of baked dough, sugar, coffee, and chocolate made me yearn for my mortal sense of taste.” (p. 16)
Now, I admit that this paragraph is particularly poignant when you’ve read the whole book and know that the shop is far from a “pocket of warm benignity,” (and I just love that phrase!) but even so, there’s much to notice here: Ginger’s habit of asking “how are things in [Blixville, Conkville, Jeremyland, etc.]?; Jeremy’s (and Jacob’s) immediate trust in Blix; Jacob’s position as omniscient but not omnipotent narrator–I thought it was a nice touch that he could smell, but not taste; and Blix’s self-satisfaction.
In many ways, the story is set up much like many of the tales themselves: beginning in the ordinary and everyday, and then moving into the evil and bizarre. Is it Bettelheim or someone else who talks about that fact that although the settings of the tales are “far far away” and exotic to us, they were normal to the original tellers of the tales: villages, cottages, woodcutters, bakers, etc.? Anyway, as you and Lauren mention in the comments, the whole point of the opening is to build up to Sten Blix and his dungeon and how, to quote Michael Gruber again, Jeremy is “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.” So I don’t think your analysis of McNeal’s conception of a fairy tale (good protagonist/evil antagonist/happy ending) is entirely fair. I think he’s trying to do something a little more complicated here in the format of the story.
I do agree that the “Uncommon Knowledge” program was disappointing. I would have loved to have seen them use some of the less common Grimm tales, but, of course, there was no other way that McNeal was going to be able to have Jeremy fail, because Jacob would have known all the answers. And clearly, he had to have Jeremy fail in order to demonstrate his integrity–both for not using the answer that was being fed to him by the producers, and for realizing that even using Jacob’s knowledge was not quite fair play.
Actually, I think my biggest issue with the book is whether it is really a YA book. Even things like focusing on the more familiar Grimm tales says to me that McNeal was thinking of a younger audience. And the use of the Disney allusion was part of that–it was something they would know. Not that teens would necessarily know more about the Grimms and the original tales, but if the book were aimed at a more sophisticated audience, he might have done more hinting and less telling. Admittedly, the last third of the book was a bit intense, but I wouldn’t have any hesitation recommending it to an 11- or 12-year-old, especially one who was a fairy tale fan.
So, as you can see, although I liked the book enormously, I agree that it has flaws (I did give it 4 stars, not 5, on Goodreads!). But I can definitely see why the National Book Award people are considering it, and I think the Newbery Committee might look at it as well as the Printz Committee. I think the flaws are enough to keep it off either of the latter two lists, but who knows?