“What I Saw and How I Lied” by Judy Blundell

05 Dec


I'm on a roll now! I read Judy Blundell's absolutely wonderful "What I Saw and How I Lied" in two nights, and I'm so eager to share my thoughts on it.

As many of you may have heard, "What I Saw and How I Lied" recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. (Click here to see a video of the author's acceptance speech.) Wow, what a well-deserved honor! I read a lot of books, both teen and adult fiction, and since I read an ARC of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" back in June, I've said that was my favorite book of the year. I may need to rethink that assessment, because "What I Saw and How I Lied" is a true masterpiece of precise tone, setting, and writing style. I love the old noir mysteries from the 1940s, and this book perfectly captures that smokey, shadowy, double-crossing, staccato vibe from back in the day. But what's really fantastic is that Blundell has also crafted a compelling, multilayered story that somehow manages to combine all the elements of noir mysteries — murder, blackmail, deceit — with deeper issues of personal and family relationships, the lasting consequences of wartime actions, and the varied meanings of truth, justice, and responsibility.

I don't want to give away too many plot points — after all, this is a mystery! — so I'll try to provide only a general outline. It's the fall of 1947, and Evie Spooner, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, has grown up watching her gorgeous, sexy mom, Bev, turn heads (and raise jealousy and suspicions) nearly everywhere she goes. Evie thinks she's content existing safely in the background, but part of her longs to grow up already. Evie's stepfather, Joe, has returned from World War II and launched a chain of successful appliance stores throughout the New York City area. Evie desperately wants life to be perfect, and it seems that everyone — including Evie — is trying a bit too hard to prove that's the case. Still, even Evie can't help but notice that Joe is usually anxious and jittery and that her folks are arguing and drinking way too much. After a series of phone calls from a mysterious man, Joe abruptly packs up Bev and Evie and drives them down to Palm Beach, Florida for a "vacation."

When the Spooners arrive in boarded-up Palm Beach — the resort town doesn't really open until December — they find themselves among only a handful of guests at Le Mirage, including Mr. and Mrs. Grayson, a wealthy, secretive couple from New York City. They're also quickly joined by Peter Coleridge, a handsome, seemingly wealthy 23 year-old who served with Joe's unit in the war. While Evie is immediately smitten by the worldly, charming Peter, Joe seems increasingly disturbed by his very presence. As the fall passes, Evie falls in love with Peter, who has been spending many afternoons with Evie and Bev, driving, taking walks on the beach, or watching movies in a local theatre. Evie finally stops acting like a shy child and attempts to gain Peter's affections by showing him the woman she has become, setting in motion a chain of events that results in death, a cover up, an intricately enmeshed web of lies, and, ultimately, Evie's decision to reveal or keep hidden the real truth.

I hope I've done this wonderful book justice in my description. Rest assured, it's a winning combination of mystery and coming of age tale, and, along the way, the book raises some unsettling questions about justice, sacrifice, and redemption. Evie is a fully fleshed out character, and although you may recognize what's going on long before she does, you will still feel every moment of her shock, pain, and devastation at learning the truth. I loved how none of the relationships in the book — Evie and Bev, Bev and Joe, Evie and Peter — are ever exactly as they might appear at a given moment; both alliances and affections shift and change throughout the story, keeping the reader off balance.

Without any reservation, I would absolutely recommend this book for both boys and girls in grades 8 and higher. While there is ample smoking and drinking among the adults and two scenes that involve sexual situations, there's nothing here that should offend or alarm older middle school students. Instead, readers will find a tense mystery that will keep them eagerly turning the pages and a moral drama whose ramifications will linger with them long afterward.

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Posted by on December 5, 2008 in Uncategorized


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