TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Judy Blundell won a well-deserved National Book Award in 2008 for her noir mystery, "What I Saw and How I Lied." Blundell is back with her latest novel for teens, "Strings Attached." Set primarily in the autumn of 1950, "Strings Attached" is another complex, multi-layered noir filled with striking characters, an evocative sense of time and place, ample secrets and lies, and a more sophisticated level of storytelling than what we normally see in YA fiction. Although I worry it might be a wee bit too sophisticated for its intended audience, "Strings Attached" is a wonderfully written, compelling story.
As the book opens, 17 year old Kit Corrigan, one of the formerly famous Corrigan triplets of Providence, Rhode Island, is narrating her story of life in New York City in October 1950. When we first meet Kit, she is a chorus girl in an awful musical production on Broadway, having quite recently escaped a tumultuous past in Providence. Kit's brother Jamie and her explosive ex-boyfriend Billy both joined the Army after a violent incident outside a nightclub. A heartbroken Kit then fled to New York to start anew and follow her dream of becoming a famous dancer and entertainer.
No sooner does Kit land in New York then mob lawyer Nate Benedict, Billy's dad, shows up outside her stage door. Nate offers a struggling, hungry, homesick Kit a job dancing at the posh Lido Club, a luxurious Manhattan apartment, and a new wardrobe of the latest, high-class fashions. What does Kit have to do in return? At first, not much at all. Just contact Nate if and when she hears from Billy. But over the next few months, Nate exerts an increasingly stronger hold over Kit, using her allegiance to Billy and her sense of duty to force her to spy on gangsters at the Lido Club. Once an apologetic Billy arrives in New York from basic training (and with hopes of marrying Kit before he deploys), Kit realizes she is in way too deep with Nate to walk cleanly away. Even worse, she knows that once the volatile Billy learns of her arrangement with his hated father, he will explode. Throw in a gangland killing, references to the Communist and nuclear scares of the early 50s, backstabbing, rumors, newspaper gossip, and some shocking revelations from the past, and you have the makings of a gripping, twisty tale.
Above all here, I loved the narrative structure. Kit frequently alludes to past incidents in relaying her current life happenings. But these quick mentions are often only elaborated upon far later in the book. Indeed, sometimes long chapters later, Kit will flashback in time — occasionally to events that occurred when she was only a little girl — to fill in the back story. Brilliant! This method keeps us off balance and guessing, as Kit slowly teases out the additional details needed to fully understand the present day occurrences. In this way, we discover that prim, maiden aunt Delia may not be exactly as proper as Kit has previously described, while we also learn the true nature of Kit's original promise to Nate Benedict. We even see firsthand the worst of Billy's temper, as Kit recalls incidents of his pettiness and anger. When we read about Billy throwing Kit's few possessions along the highway in a jealous rage, we better understand the crushing pressure she feels to keep her dealings with Nate a secret from him. It's an incredibly effective technique.
I also adored the precision of the setting — we get all the lingo, music, fashions, fears, food, celebrities, technology, etc., of the early 1950s — as well as the dark smokiness of New York City nightlife. Similarly, Blundell expertly maintains a noir tone throughout the story — Who are those men watching Kit and her neighbors? Has someone been in the apartment? What is Nate really involved in? Is someone following Kit? What happened to the long-missing Delia? Could Nate be a murderer himself? — which underscores the sense of foreboding and intrigue. Well done!
I won't say too much about the characters, other to report that they all, beyond just Delia, have great depth and intricacy. Yes, Billy is wild and tempestuous, but we also see his tender, frightened side. He is a young man terrified of becoming his father, which ultimately colors all his actions. Speaking of which, Nate is calculating and quite possibly evil, but by the end of the story we better understand — but never accept — his desperation. And Kit? She's headstrong, scrappy, and terribly naive, but her dreams of succeeding give the story an undercurrent of optimism and hope.
Ok, so needless to say, I loved "Strings Attached!" It's edgy, complex, and perfectly evocative of its time and place. Is it maybe too sophisticated and subtle for its intended teen audience? Perhaps. But more mature readers will be drawn into this stirring novel of suspicion, obligation, and long-hidden secrets. "Strings Attached" is out now. Enjoy!