It’s an adage. And a cliche. And the Achilles heel of Strings Attached.
In the interest of full disclosure, I recognized the impressive qualities of What I Saw and How I Lied but never felt the love so many felt. So while I was looking forward to this one, it was on my pile for reasons of this blog rather than because I was dying to read it. I don’t think this affected my reading, but I am in a sharing mood right now. So there you go.
Also? I almost stopped reading half way through. Not because it was awful, but because at that point I already had an entire pack of sticky flags used up, and almost all of them represented things that were striking me as flaws. Many were minor, but the aggregate effect was not.
Brief digression (or, it would be, if I’d written anything to really digress from thus far): I would have put the book down for good at that halfway point, possibly sooner, if I were reading with only the Printz lens on. I remember distinctly a sense of pressure—I needed to read as widely as possible to ensure I didn’t miss anything (yes, the rest of the group was doing the same, but we’re talking thousands of books each year—we all needed to read widely, and without too much initial overlap, to be sure we were looking with even a degree of thoroughness). Given the stakes, and a genuine desire to find the really top books of the year, anything I was reading that had citable flaws in the first 100 pages or so was likely to be thrown back in the pond. Especially by October—we’ve all got a sense of the year as a cohort now, and I’ve read enough exceptional titles (cough cough Chime cough Life cough) or flawed-but-stick-with-you-titles (Imaginary Girls, anyone?) to feel comfortable putting things aside if I don’t think they are going to be leaving Dallas with a shiny.
But I kept reading (although, with enough material to make my points, I stopped wasting sticky flags). Why? Because the pressure isn’t on—if Sarah and I fail to even cover the ultimate winner, it just makes for better Monday morning quarterbacking in January (right? I mean, you will still love us even if we totally miss the big one, won’t you?). Because I own the book in my collection and it has a very nice cover (even if the model looks a little more 2010 than 1950). Because good historical fiction that feels more like a novel than a textbook (despite a slight inclination to random bursts of exposition) is not that common. And above all, because my day job involves giving books to kids, and I think this one has appeal and none of the flaws make it unreadable: it’s a good, slightly sexy, absorbing story, even if the writing is a little messy at times. So I finished it for my kids, really.
Alright, enough digressing.
The good: this was clearly carefully researched, and mostly the research doesn’t intrude. I didn’t know anything about the Kefauver Hearings, but Blundell, via Kit’s voice, did a nice enough job setting them up that I didn’t feel any need to hit Wikipedia. The firing of Hank’s parents for suspicion of communism (it’s only blacklisting if it’s Hollywood) was also done well: Kit doesn’t really get it, so I think a reader who doesn’t know enough history (not me this time) can just move on. There is the slight question of whether it was a necessary subplot for any reason aside from getting a Fed and Kit in proximity for one moment, or if it was just local (in the timestream sense) color that was given a little extra screen time because why waste all the research, but again, minor flaws.
Also good: it’s a little sexy. Just enough to feel mature, while feeling true to its time (Kit is a good girl and it’s 1950). Her voice, while not perfect, is perfectly convincing when she talks about her love for Billy and her concerns about him, so that readers can both pull for her and feel concern: he’s probably bad news. Her obviously genuine emotions about Billy also make her stupidity about Nate more believable to the reader—she’s 17 and he’s Billy’s father: that adds up to a reasonable explanation, at least early on, although this falls apart as we see more flashbacks and realize that she’s not nearly as ignorant of the danger Nate poses as it might initially seem.
Which brings me nicely to that fatal flaw.
The timeline is a hot mess, and in the end, it feels like what works in the larger mystery and the past-informs-the-present inevitable cycle (which provides the backbone and thematic resonance of this novel) only works because the all-over-the-place, inconsistent timeline allows facts to be withheld from the reader. But since Kit already knows all of the past, it’s disingenuous at best that she doesn’t catch on or wise up any sooner. Despite repeated references to Delia and eventually hints about Elena’s importance (which, not so much, but the familial tensions are important), the reader doesn’t actually (spoiler alert) find out about Delia’s disappearance until more than halfway through the book. But Delia was the only mother Kit knew. And (more spoilers) Kit knew Delia was somehow involved with Nate, even if at 12 she didn’t really get what she knew. It makes no sense for this event, which we know from the recent flashbacks and angry words with Da matters quite a lot to Kit, to never ever come up even as she references secrets and past dealings with Nate.
It feels like plot rigging. And it makes the authorial hand too apparent, because the desire to build mystery (presumably; that’s the most likely reason I can see) ends up making characters act falsely. Just a little bit; Kit is otherwise pretty believable (although she does switch between spineless and fierce a bit suddenly), but enough to crack the windshield (I did warn you we’d beat the behind out of that, right?).
Also, the timing doesn’t make sense: so much happens between September and Thanksgiving! I can’t actually find enough time for everything that needs to happen to happen, especially in late September/early October. Kit gets home from Summer Stock, and enough time goes by for Jeff Toland’s show to be closing, and then more time goes by before Kit takes off for New York and it’s still September? And in October, there’s enough time for her to feel a bit of despair, then start eating lunch where all the dancers eat, land a job, and do it long enough to feel some sense of comfort (shown, not told, in the opening chapter), AND for the show to close? Now, I don’t know much about 1950’s theater, so maybe this timeline is slightly less ridiculous than I think, but fiction needs to be truer than reality. When something is unbelievable in real life (like Jeff Toland presumably learning all his lines and doing all the blocking and costuming and everything else that goes into getting a show ready in what, one day?), we say “Wow.” But when this happens in a book, we say “Wait, that doesn’t make sense!” The willing suspension of disbelief needs to not be popped, and the “it happened in real life” excuse doesn’t work. And that’s even assuming shows did rehearse, open, AND close within two weeks in Providence in the 50’s.
Once again, the best I can come up with is plot rigging. A whole host of events had to happen in time for a certain actual historical event to work, and that event was perfect for the plot, except that it required smashing a whole lot into the preceding months. And seeing what appears to be the author’s hand all over the place really damages the literary (high) quality of the book. It’s clumsy. It is, as I said at the top, the Achilles heel in an otherwise appealing read. But since appeal doesn’t matter here, and writing does, I’m guessing we won’t be hearing anything about this in January.
As always, if you disagree, the comments are open and we are ready to rumble!
Pub details: Scholastic March 2011; reviewed from final copy.