Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Strings Detached

blundellcover 198x300 Strings Detached“Timing is everything.”

It’s an adage. And a cliche. And the Achilles heel of Strings Attached.

The pedigree: 3 stars and an NBA-winning book already under the author’s belt made this one a solid contenda.

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.

IMG 3422 300x225 Strings Detached

Clearly I need brighter lights at home, but here is the sticky-note-bristling book.

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.

share save 171 16 Strings Detached
About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    I enjoyed What I Saw and How I Lied but thought it would have been a better as an adult book. I probably would have bothered with this one but the library had an e-audiobook of it when I was looking for something to listen to. That made it hard to tell if the weirdness of the timing was in my head or in the book, so I’m glad to hear it wasn’t just me. I never warmed up to Kit or found her particularly believable (though I did like the Kit of her flashbacks better than the Kit of the current story, which was weird when, as you mention, the two aren’t as far apart in timing as they first appeared to be).

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Jennifer, I found her believable but also didn’t actually like her– but thought that really was just me! However, reports from the middle school are positive, so I wonder if there is something so authentic about her adolescence that it appeals to teens and not adult readers?

  2. Mark Flowers says:

    I LOVED “What I Saw . . .” and was really looking forward to this one. Now, 7 months later, until I read this post I couldn’t have told you a thing about it except I was very disappointed. I do remember thinking that it had a lot in common with “Ten Cents a Dance” and did not compare favorably.

    Personally, I never think too hard about issues of dates and times (even after Sarah discussed it in detail regarding Everyone Sees the Ants, I *still* didn’t notice any dates on my second read), so that wasn’t a problem for me. I think it had more to do with the gangster stuff seeming really pulpy (in a bad way). I also now remember being put off by the artifice of the plot – what you called “plot rigging” (good phrase).

  3. Jen B. says:

    I love what you’re saying here about how books have to be truer to reality than reality itself – that “it happened in real life” doesn’t really work as an excuse for a plot being unbelievable. I think it’s also applicable to Okay for Now by Schmidt which has gotten heavy discussion for the Newbery. Recently in the comments on Heavy Medal someone pointed out it ought to be considered for the Printz as well since it skews to the upper ages of the Newbery. I hadn’t thought about that myself, but I’d be thrilled to have you ladies discuss it particularly in relation to the believability issues in Strings Attached since both are historical fiction (albeit different time periods) and both deal with the theater.

  4. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    While I haven’t read this one yet, now I’ll be sure to do so while paying attention to the timing to see if it rings true.

  5. Elizabeth Partridge says:

    I loved Strings Attached. I fell into the magic of it: Kit’s longings, the difficult choices she had to make, the times, the stage, the families and their past histories together.

    For me, the adolescent quest of “what do I want more than anything in the world?” and “how far will I compromise my morals to get it?” was pitch perfect.

  6. D.H. says:

    I loved STRINGS ATTACHED. And one of the things I loved most about it was how real Kit seemed. She was not a cardboard character teen, she was multi-dimensional. Sometimes I liked her, sometimes I didn’t, but I was right there with her every step of the way. I don’t think there was author rigging at all. I think we discover things as Kit does and it was all quite believable to me. The writing is beautiful–literary and concrete, and it reads like an adult book, which I really like and I think older teens do, too. I am sure she got the facts right about the timing of shows. That was a very different time in the theater–not like the hugely long preview season now, and a show could make it or break it in a week. Sometimes when an author breaks the mold of a genre–as Blundell does–not everyone gets it. But that doesn’t mean the book isn’t good. Or even, as I think in this case, great. I think it’s a really worthy book and should be a contender.

  7. MES says:

    I don’t mean to be antagonistic here, everyone is entitled to their opinions, especially when it comes to literature, but I found this review so overwhelmingly difficult to read. How can I possibly judge this reviewer’s opinions of this book when she can’t so much write a clear sentence herself!? The exhausting parenthetical interruptions, the distracting repetitiveness, and downright bizarre assessments were not only off putting but also unclear! For example, “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.” What on earth does this reviewer’s own autumnal lack of time management have to do with the development of this story? It doesn’t. Such a weak and irrelevant argument!

    This review is also problematic in that it is SO deeply referential. I happened to have read (and loved) this novel, so when reading this review, I at least knew who was who, what was going on etc. But for the POTENTIAL reader who is visiting this website in hopes to get a CLEAR idea of what this book really is, there’s a maddeningly sparse amount of plot and character description. We understand (ad. nauseam) how many sticky notes were used, but what we don’t understand is THE BOOK ITSELF. How is one to agree or disagree with the reviewer’s opinions when they don’t even have a clear sense of the actual content of the book?

    That said, I realize I’m arguably doing the same thing here, which is ranting about the reviewer without specifically expressing WHY I so wildly disagree. STRINGS ATTACHED is a completely engrossing, elegant though accessible, and intelligent read. It’s exactly the kind of book young readers should have in hand these days. It’s got the titillating stuff sure, but sentence by sentence, Blundell is a WRITER. Her prose is seamless. This story feels simultaneously fresh and classic, which is incredibly hard to pull off. Another stunning duality at play—Kit is both painfully vulnerable and wildly headstrong, totally three dimensional. Anyway, I’ve belabored my point. STRINGS ATTACHED is wonderful, and this review is well, a “hot mess.”

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Hi Molly, this is Karyn. Please feel free to call me that rather than “the reviewer” since I am absolutely speaking from the I perspective when I post.

      And just to clarify– I have no problem with my own life in late September and early October! I could not find enough time in Kit’s life for all of the things that Kit does in that time. I looked very closely at the chapter headings of month and year and the implied passage of time in the narrative, and the action didn’t seem to fit into the timeframe provided. If the dates weren’t at the top of each chapter with the month as well as the year, would this have been noticeable? Maybe not. But they were there, and that called attention to what I referred to as plot rigging. Does this make Strings Attached a bad book? No, but it struck me as a flaw that would likely make this not a final five title.

      Do note that our goal here is to discuss titles as we would at the table if we were on the Printz committee, so we have been assuming readers have read at least the flap copy and have a working knowledge of the texts up for discussion. Which means this is not a traditional review blog, it’s a discussion of Printz-eligible titles in the very narrow context of the award. Many of the books I am either championing or panning in the context of Printz worthiness would be treated entirely differently in a more traditional review space, where things like appeal would matter and where it would be possible to have far more than five titles standing at the end of the day.

  8. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    What Strings Attached does phenomenally well: create the world of 1950, create Kit’s world, as if I could walk into it tomorrow. The atmosphere, too — of a certain dread hanging over everything (mafia, the bomb, communists, pregnancy). Kit, too, was a real-life person for me; I didn’t agree with everything she did, and sometimes didn’t like what she did, but she was real.

    Other characters were real enough that I was frustrated not to get more. I didn’t have enough to quite get Delia, for instance; a few glimpses, but more a story I put together in my head than Delia herself. Muddie, also — while she was fleshed out, she was used so little that at times it seemed it was Jamie and Kit, the twins, and Muddie. I understand, this is told thru Kit’s eyes and it reflects how she sees, or doesn’t see Delia, but, still, I wanted more.

    Da — great character, even if I’m a bit over making excuses for weak men’s weaknesses. While the level of acceptance of Da’s flaws is believable, the Da=loving but weak contrasted to Delia=hard working but too strong didn’t work for me.

    The timeline: so much was going on, over not just the tight fall 1950 timeline (between end of summer stock & the train cash) but before. I’m wondering why Delia leaving was held back, not made clear until later. Or why Delia was gone for years but her room wasn’t used? I’d definately like to sit down and try to hash out the exact timeline of what was going on when with this one.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] different points Kit thinks back to events in her life at different ages). As Karyn points out at Someday My Printz Will Come, it can sometimes be confusing for the reader, including figuring out what Kit knows when. (I [...]

Speak Your Mind

*