The Plot: Vera Dietz, 18, hates and loves Charlie Kahn, her dead ex-best friend. Hates, because he died. Because before he died, he stopped being her friend, started hanging out with people who hated her and tried to make her life miserable. Hated, because he abandoned her. Loved, because from the time she was little, he was her best friend. Loved, because she was always in love with him and was just waiting and hoping for it to be something more. Loved, because she knew his good and his bad.
As for Charlie — his life and death haunts her. What happened in those twenty four hours before he died? Did he really burn down the pet store at the mall? All she has left of Charlie is his secrets. Should she tell?
The Good: The structure of Please Ignore Vera Dietz is fabulous, just the kind of “confusing but not really” storytelling I enjoy. Part One, The Funeral: Vera at Charlie’s funeral. The next chapter is three and half months later. A few chapters later, Ken Dietz (Vera’s dad) has a “brief word” to share. And then the local Pagoda talks. Vera shares some history from the past. Of course, every now and then the dead kid — Charlie — speaks up. Because, yes, he is haunting Vera. As he explains, “I regret everything that happened with Vera. . . . As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have a choice. I war born to a man like my father and a woman like my mother, and I had to save Vera from myself. . . . Loving Vera Dietz was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. She was a good person from a good family.”
Charlie’s perspective, especially this, shows us a Vera we didn’t know before. Because the Vera that starts with the funeral is a Vera who is tough, lonely, and drinking. It’s a Vera who has a father who thinks she should be working full time while going to school. It’s a family history where her mother left when Vera was twelve, going to Las Vegas with a new husband and sending Vera one birthday card a year. Vera’s mother Cindy Sindy was 17 when Vera was born, Ken just a year older. When Vera turned thirteen, her father told her, “When you were just a little baby, your mother took a job over at Joe’s. . . . A strip club. It was only for a few months, Vera. She wanted her freedom back after dropping out of school, getting kicked out of her house, and having — uh — a baby so young. I was still drinking then.” You can just imagine what Charlie’s family is like, if he thinks Vera comes from a good family.
These are the times in the book where I had to remind myself that Ken Dietz was young when he became a parent (just 18), had pretty bad parents himself, was drinking for the start of Vera’s life, but that he stopped drinking, went to college, provided for his family, and, most important, stayed. He tries. But he really doesn’t realize what he told Vera — or what she heard — because later he thinks, “she’s too young to understand the situation Cindy Sindy was in when she was born and I was drunk.” What Ken eventually tells the reader is what the reader probably already figured out: “I was drinking our rent.” Ken really intrigues me, for his own back-story, for staying, for the mixed messages he gives Vera about her absent mother, for his always doing the Cindy/Sindy thing with her name. Turns out, Cindy Sindy changed her name when she left her family. What days it say about Ken that for the entire book, he calls her Cindy Sindy? That I am obsessing about a side character like this shows the strength of the characterization.
The story isn’t told in a linear fashion, but life isn’t linear. Wait, yes it is, you may say. I am seven, eleven, thirteen, very linear. No, not really. Stories and lives are shaped and told in various ways. So Vera tells the story, and it begins with Charlie’s funeral, and as the year goes by, it is linear but she is thinking on past events, past moments, which is something we all do every day. We remember a meeting, a party, a kiss, a moment and so our own story is full of flashbacks. Just like Vera’s story.
Please Ignore Vera Dietz has been nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. The mystery surrounds Charlie’s last twenty four hours, and Charlie’s secrets. Vera knows the secrets, knows the truth, but is reluctant to share what she knows with the police, with her father, even with herself. She is the child of an alcoholic, and Ken Dietz has tried to be a good father, the father he never had, but parents teach things they don’t mean to. Ken Dietz has taught his daughter to keep secrets, to not talk, to not share. To so fear becoming when nature and nurture have in store for us (alcholism, teen pregnancy, poverty, violence, abandonment) that the lesson Vera learned was to be invisible. That, too, is part of the mystery of Vera Dietz: why does she want to be invisible? What will happen when she no longer ignores herself?
Check out the review at Reading Rants, which talks more than I do about the wonderfully wry language and dark humor.
The Book Smugglers sum up Vera Dietz and Vera’s and Charlie’s world as “a horrible, poisonous environment they live in where the idea of destiny (and genetics even, as idiotic as it may sound from outsiders who know better) keep them both trapped in a vicious circle and because they are both failed by the ones that would help them getting away from it, i.e. their parents it is all down to Vera and Charlie to try and break away on their own. We know that Charlie didn’t and this is part of what makes it heartbreaking. Because it leaves Vera in such a lonely, cumbersome life where breathing is hard, getting away is hard, trying to see is hard but by the end of the book, there is definite hope in the horizon.” It’s a great description of the physical, mental, and emotional trap that Vera is stuck in. Ignoring it all, ignoring herself, just makes it worse.