The Plot: October, 1950. Kit has left Providence, Rhode Island for New York City. Kit, 17, is lucky — she’s found a job dancing in a Broadway musical. It’s not a great musical, it’s not a great job, it’s not great pay: she’s paying ten dollars a week to sleep on a couch in the Bronx. But it’s the start of her dream to be an actress, and it’s away from her home and the bad memories and her ex. Not as far away as she thinks, because there in the audience is Billy’s father, Nate Benedict.
Billy has joined the Army and he’s not speaking with his parents. Mr. Benedict has a plan: he happens to own an apartment in New York City. Kit can stay there rent-free, all she has to do is reach out to Billy. Other than that, says Mr. Benedict, no strings attached. Kit should know better — she knows Mr. Benedict. Knows the rumors that he’s more than an attorney for gangsters, that he’s a gangster himself.
An apartment of her own. All for her. In Manhattan. Kit, who as a child shared a mattress in a closet with her brother and sister, Kit, who has put up with bedbugs and worse in her struggle in New York, says “yes.” Kit finds out there are always strings attached.
The Good: After reading Strings Attached, you’re going to want to some of the great films from the late 40s and early 50s. Blundell recreates that New York world, so well you think you can open a door and step into it. It’s in the little details, of the clothes, the food, the hair. Kit manages to be of her time, but also “modern” enough to be identifiable to the modern reader. She has a dream, she’s chasing that dream, but she also loves a boy. As for the dream chasing, it’s not like she’s doing something unthinkable at the time; many young women went to New York with similar dreams of fame and success.
Strings Attached reads like a mystery; not a traditional whodunit, but there are many questions raised from the start that are gradually revealed throughout the book. Why is Kit in New York? What happened between her and Billy? Why did she leave her family? The use of flashbacks is well done. Yes, there are a lot of them; yes, they are not linear (that is, at 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 confess, while I was tempted to write down the timeline of Kit’s life, I didn’t).
Part of that mystery is a constant sense of dread, from the deeply personal (what will Mr. Benedict ask of her next) to the global (the Cold War, communists, the bomb.)
Kit has an aunt, Delia; part of the mystery concerns Delia. I found Delia the most fascinating person in the story. Kit is young, Kit is discovering things about herself, Kit is making mistakes. Delia, on the other hand — Delia is a mix of contradictions. To not give too much away, it’s her decisions as an adult, the face she puts on for the world versus the person she is inside, which fascinate me. Because Kit is telling this story, we only see glimpses of Delia, and those glimpses are always colored by Kit’s own knowledge (or lack of knowledge) and emotions. I connected some of the dots that Blundell gave, but I wanted more.
Another character that Kit only gives tantalizing glimpses of is Da. Is he really just another weak man, whose weaknesses are excused because he is a loving father? Kit paints a picture of childhood poverty, but when Delia and her paycheck disappear, the family does not move into a smaller apartment. I don’t doubt the tough times or the poverty, but I’m just not sure that Kit always shares everything she sees. Then again, much as it personally frustrates me, the hard working mother (and Delia is a mother figure) who cares for the practical never seems to get either the love or respect as the loving but irresponsible father.
I liked Strings Attached best when the focus was on the “now”: Kit in New York, Kit trying to make it, Kit wondering if she should call Billy, Kit trying to sort out her emotions and feelings for Billy. The details of Kit in the past were as strong as Kit in New York — I loved Kit talking about her clothes, or sleeping on the mattress in a closet, finding herself at summer stock theatre. But, it’s the almost adult Kit, falling down the slippery slope of “strings attached” that attracts me the most.