Rebecca Stead is the M. Night Shyamalan of children’s literature, and I mean that in a good Sixth Sense way, not a lame The Happening one. It’s funny, but when I try to compare her other authors I find myself tongue-tied. Who else spends as much time on setting up and knocking down expectations in such a surefire manner? Now Ms. Stead has created the most dreaded of all books: The one you write after you’ve won a major award. Which is to say, she won a Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me and now comes her next book Liar & Spy. Like all beloved authors who don’t follow up their hits with sequels, Ms. Stead is contending with some critics who expected more science fiction. Instead, what they’re getting is a jolt of realistic fiction housed in a story that feels like nothing so much as Rear Window meets Harriet the Spy. Though opinions on it vary widely, in the end I think it’s safe to call this a fun novel with a secret twist and a strong, good heart. Who could ask for anything more?
Don’t call him Gorgeous. Georges has had to live with his uniquely spelled name all his life (gee THANKS, namesake Georges Seurat) and it’s never been anything but a pain. You know what else is a pain? Moving from your awesome home where you had a loft made out of a real fire escape to an apartment with an unemployed dad and an absentee albeit loving mom. When Georges meets the similarly oddly named kid Safer in the new apartment building he becomes enmeshed in the boy’s spy club. Is there someone up to no good in the complex? How far will the boys go to learn the truth? As things escalate and George finds himself facing fears he didn’t even know he could have, he discovers that everything in his life boils down to this question: when it comes to his relationship with Safer, who really is the liar and who really is the spy?
If a book has a twist to its ending but you don’t know that a twist will be coming in the first place, is it a spoiler to mention the fact in a review? I’m counting on the answer to that question to be no since I’d like to talk about the twist a tad. As an adult reader of a children’s book text I did pick up on the fact that throughout the book adults kept looking at Georges in a concerned way. I think it’s fair to say that an intelligent kid with a good eye for detail might also notice as well. Would they think it weird that these looks aren’t explained or would they just write it off as the author’s literary fancy? I haven’t a clue. All I really know at this point is that for probably 96% of the child readership of this book, the ending is going to come flying at them from out of nowhere. In all likelihood.
I’ve had a lot of debates with adults about this novel and it’s funny how diverse the opinions of it range. Some folks think it’s a natural continuation of When You Reach Me. Others take issue with Stead’s use of geography or pacing. But the sticking point that comes up the most when people discuss this book is the fact that Georges is a boy. For a some readers, it isn’t until a good chunk of the story has passed that they suddenly realize that the voice they’ve been hearing is a boy’s voice and not a girl’s. For some, the shock is too much and they deem the speaker to be an inauthentic take on how guys talk. Stead is the mother of two boys, as I recall, so they are not (to cop a phrase) “unknown quantities” to her. Anyway, for my part this was not the problem that it’s proved to be for some readers. I was more concerned about the nature of the taste test. In this book Georges has a science class where a taste-related test will determine whether or not he’s an outcast for good. I loved how the test fit in within the context of the greater story. What I couldn’t quite feel was Georges’ dread of this test. It’s described in such a blasé matter-of-fact way early on that when we are told that he worries about the test it’s just that. We’re told how he feels. We don’t feel how he feels. It’s a fine line.
That said, when it comes right down to it Stead’s writing is stellar. She fills the book with these little insights and conjectures that could only come from a unique brain. I love it when kids speculate about weird things in books, so Georges’ thoughts about his dad as a boy are just great, particularly when he says, “I wonder whether Dad and I would have been friends, or if he would have been friends with Dallas Llewellyn, or Carter Dixon, or what. It’s kind of a bummer to think your own dad might have been someone who called you Gorgeous.” Similarly I was very fond of the characters in this book. Safer was a perfect noir hero, complete with backstory and shady intentions. And seriously, how can you resist a kid that keeps insisting that he’s drinking coffee from his flask? Minor characters are just as interesting too. Bob English, a classmate of Georges, is a redeemed class freak along the lines of Dwight from The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. I’m a sucker for that kind of creation.
Unlike her previous novel When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is set firmly in the 21st century. In an era of helicopter parenting, this book got me to wonder whether or not the economic downturn would create an abundance of latchkey children with parents who work more and more jobs to make ends meet. If so, we may see more characters like Georges free to wander the streets while their parental units exist in absence. Something to chew on. Regardless, the book has engendered a lot of discussion and undoubtedly folks will continue to talk about it and debate it for years to come. The best way to summarize it? It’s about an unreliable narrator who meets an unreliable narrator. It’s also fun. And that, really, is all you need to say about that.
On shelves now.
First Sentence: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue.”
Source: Galley borrowed from friend for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
- The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
- Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma
Other Blog Reviews:
- crunchings & munchings
- The Book Smugglers
- There’s a Book
- Random Musings of a Bibliophile
- Confessions of a Bibliovore
- Ms. Yingling Reads
And here’s a fun 60-Second Recap video as well.